Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Moving beyond human precepts

Now and then I run across something in the Daily Office readings that I have never quite focused on before. For the uninitiated in Episcopalspeak, the Daily Office gives us biblical readings from Old and New Testaments assigned for each day running on a two-year cycle.

We are nearing the end of Year One (the new church year begins the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 29, when Year Two will begin).

So it was that on Monday I came across a tidbit in the Gospel of Matthew that I had seen before, but which now jumped off the page to me. The passage for the day, Matthew 15: 1-20, is a short lecture from Jesus about how religious leaders give lip service to the religious law (Torah) but do not honor it with their actions.

He ends up with the familiar statement that it is what is in your heart that leads to good or bad actions.

But that is not what intrigued me. What caught my attention Monday was Jesus quoting from Isaiah 29: 13. Jesus does not quote Isaiah precisely, but tweaks the Isaiah passage a bit. Here is how it comes out with Jesus:

“The people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

Teaching human precepts as doctrines.

That led me to crack open the commentaries on this passage. What I learned is that Jesus was wading into the controversy of the korban, a First Century Jewish practice of declaring something to be sacred, or "clean," when, in fact, it really isn’t. Jesus criticized the religious leaders for looking for loopholes in Torah by embracing human practices and declaring them clean when, in fact, they are merely cultural customs. Let us not forget that in this, like so much else, Jesus is Jewish and is primarily concerned with showing others how to be better Jews.

As I said, Jesus tweaked Isaiah a bit. The Isaiah passage is focused on worship practices. Jesus moves beyond worship and into life practices. He puts it squarely: how much of what we justify in life as central to religious doctrine is really cultural practice dressed up as sacred?

And that led me to wondering how much korban we do as Christians in the theological debates that so captivate us now. How often do we declare that one of our cherished cultural practices is based on “sacred” doctrine when, in fact, it is really only cultural?

This is a touchy topic, and can cut in several directions.

A century-and-a-half ago, white Americans declared that slavery was sacred, and they found much in religious doctrine to support their position. The Bible is certainly full of justifications for slavery. Yet who among us now would make the claim that slavery is justifiable based on Christian doctrine?

Did the doctrine change or did the culture? Or was the doctrine never really in support of slavery, but those who supported slavery forced the doctrine to support it?

Nothing is more culturally based than marriage customs. That has been true since the dawn of humanity, and is certainly true now. Every society and every religion has marriage rites, and rules governing who may be married to whom. The Bible reflects several forms of marriage, including polygamy. When it comes to marriage, the Bible oozes with the culture of the people who wrote it.

But what about marriage is based on doctrine?

I sincerely believe that God blesses loving relationships, and that two people can be bound together in spirit and flesh in life-long committed relationships. I believe that is at the heart of the gospel, and that St. Paul gives us a foundation of “faith, hope, and charity” that can guide us in all human relationships, including marriage.

Yet we also add layers of culture – human “precepts” – to our marriage customs. Our wedding ceremony in the Episcopal Church is based on the Book of Common Prayer; weddings in our church look a certain way, reflecting our European (English) roots. We've added a few extras in recent years, like "unity" candles. Go to Mexico or India or China, and you will see very different ways of celebrating weddings, all wonderful, and all grounded deeply in their cultures.

This passage from Matthew, if taken seriously, poses tough questions for conservatives and liberals alike on the topic of marriage.

Conservatives rightly warn that we should beware of bending our religious doctrine to changes in our culture. Yet how much of that doctrine is grounded in a cultural practice? How much of their opposition to gay marriage is really based on a cultural bias against homosexuality? Do recent votes, like in Maine, against gay marriage prove that gay marriage is wrong, or only that American culture is still much biased against gay marriage?

Recently, a wing of our church has taken to calling itself “orthodox” because it is following traditional teachings on marriage. Yet that begs the question: Are these traditional teachings “orthodox,” or merely human precepts in the guise of orthodoxy?

Liberals warn that the culture is changing, and the church needs to change with it lest it become meaningless to the people it is meant to serve. Yet does the gospel change when the culture changes? Are liberals responding merely to new human precepts? Are there timeless foundations to the gospel that can guide us beyond the boundaries of culture as it changes?

It seems to me that there are. When we discuss the issue of marriage, straight and gay, we ought to be discussing it in the context those timeless gospel values of faith, hope and charity.

True orthodoxy might just get us out of this predicament.

As I understand it, orthodoxy in a Christian context is grounded in the creeds: statements of faith about the triune nature of God and the saving acts of Jesus Christ (note: marriage is not mentioned). Resurrection is central to the creeds, and resurrection knows no cultural boundaries because resurrection comes only by the grace of God through Christ. Resurrection and salvation ought to be our guide in conversations about marriage, whether you are liberal or conservative – and maybe then our conversation might move beyond “human precepts.”


Ginger Greene said...

A fine comment, Jim, intelligent and thought-provoking. Thanks.

Kevin said...

There's a part of that passage in Matthew I like to highlight when it comes to the Episcopal Church, the first part of Matthew 5:19 - "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven."

St. Paul seems to make it pretty clear what the first century church thinks of homosexuality. Jesus himself knew the Hebrew scripture of Leviticus. Why didn't he speak of it in the gospel? Perhaps it was obvious to the people then, where it isn't now. Judaism and Islam haven't forgotten that homosexual acts are a turning away from God, but the culture where Christianity finds itself is eroding on what would appear to be this basic moral. Jesus didn't say to the adultress, "You were born with human desires and you these actions with love in your heart. Come, let me bless and embrace your ways." On the contrary, in John 8:11 he forgave her and told her "go forth and sin no more".

Do we now interpret the Bible to be more convenient to our culture? It's easy to use reason to justify the things we want, because also in Matthew, Jesus says, "wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it."

In every state where the issue has been put to a vote, the people of America have rejected gay marriage. Why the Episcopal Church doesn't understand the same thing that the populace does is beyond me. The General Convention has become overrun with supporters of gay marriage, and the conservatives have either been shouted down, or flatly left the church. So where does that leave the church in reference to Matthew 5:19? Is it teaching congregations to "suppress the truth by their wickedness" (Romans 1:18)?

I pray often to know God's divine will in this matter, and to have the courage to fulfill it. The desire for peace is strong enough that I still listen to proponents of gay marriage, hoping through dialog that Gos will reveal His will to me that way. Time and time again however, the arguments seem too tidy, too convenient. In short, it seems like cheap grace.

I hope to maintain peace with those who support gay marriage, because I hold no animosity for them. However, I won't delude myself into thinking that we can all just ignore the strife and agree to disagree in perpetuity. Quoting Jesus in Matthew's gospel again, "All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved." If I am hated for being against gay marriage while I continue to seek truth, so be it. There is a cost to following Jesus, and we shouldn't shy away from paying it.

The Lord be with you.

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Thanks for your comment. A few things;
1- How much of your homophobia is based on the Bible, and how much of it is based on the conditioning of your culture. Be honest.
2- I have been to General Convention, including last summer. At no time have I heard conservatives "shouted down."
3- As I pointed out, losing the vote on gay marriage in Maine or California proves only that the culture is still very biased against gays. If you don't believe me, ask a gay person about what it is like to live in this society.
4-The Bible and Paul are not as clear as you claim on the topic of homosexuality. Paul was talking of a cultural practice of men having sex with each other in the baths, and probably some cultic practices in early Christians communities as well. There was nothing close to marriage as we conceive of it today, either gay or straight. Marriage was primarily a property transaction. Loving commitment was not in the equation. You are free to interpret the Bible as you will, but you will not free it from the culture in which it dwells. And, do not forget, Paul was against marriage, period, and considered only for the weak.
5- I do hope you are not endorsing the ancient Hebrew purity codes. Stoning unruly children generally results in a prison term these days.
6- That said, there are gospel principles -- and those are timeless. Can we agree on those as a starting point for discussion?

Eric said...

What a great reflection on culture and doctrine on this touchy subject in American/Western Christian life.

AugsburgCatholic said...

Your arguement falls back upon you as well. By seeking to take a homosexual relationship and wrap it in something that has been considered sacred definition for over 1000 years you are seeking to wrap it in that same doctrine to make it legitimate.
American slavery is a poor comparison as parts of the American population have always held it as wrong. Orthodox Lutherans have always held any difference between people based on race to be wrong.

Where you are incorrect in saying that "Nothing is more culturally based than marriage customs." There is one fundamental thing at the heart of marriage across human cultures. That is procreation and the fact that under Natural law a penis is intended to go into a vagina for the purpose of insemination. Some cultures put odd things around that from slightly odd to just plain bizzar but at the core of it is always the same thing.

Liberals must show patience and put God first just as conservatives must show some compasion and put God first. Christ says to love God above all things, even yourself. So certainly that means loving God above a political motive.

We are only now coming to grips with homosexuality as a society and from understanding it scientifically that more push there is the worse things will become. To return to your slavery topic as the anti-slavery movement grew leading up to the Civil War so did dehumanization and abuse of blacks and it eventually exploded into a few small powder kegs and then a full blown war.

If you are actually interested in the topic of culture and orthoxy and change I recomend reading Luthers early writings on liturgy and images. Both are far more cultural then marriage. He argues for slow conservative change because radical change breeds destruction.

Anonymous said...

The Rev. James Richardson use a perjorative term (homophobic)at the very start of his opinion. Hardly conducive to open and honest discussion. Perhaps he would be more convincing if he did not resort to belittling name calling. This is especially problematic when the term is applied to those whom society as a whole would say do not truly fit the definition. Hardly an expression of charity, sir.

Randy Cone said...

I happened on this page while doing a google search in an attempt to ensure that my opinion of what 'human precepts' are, was correct.
I just noticed that the Reverend does not choose to respond to anonymous posts.
I did not see that I could post my name without having to create a Google account.
The anonymous post above, is mine.
As clarification:
If I do not like the taste of cooked beets, and my wife insists on putting them on my plate next to my other foods, do I have an unreasonable fear of cooked beets (a phobia)if I complain that they are on my plate? Would it be fair of my wife to label me with a intentionally perjorative term to assist her argument that I should accept having beets put on my plate with the rest of my food?
I have studied strategies of argument in english, and what you have resorted to in your comment to Kevin is called a logical fallacy.
Allow me to finish by saying that I agree with you that it is imperative to rid ourselves of human precepts, if we truly desire to find the whole of God's revelation to us, this includes a re-examination of homosexuality.
We must be careful that we do not bring our precepts into the debate, from either side of the argument, if we want know the truth. I must say that directing a perjorative term such as homophobia toward another makes me doubt that you have come to the spiritual debate with all your own precepts set aside.

One of the Christs redeemed:

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Dear Randy,

Thanks for having the decency to put your name on your post, and having the courage of your convictions by not hiding behind "Anonymous" or a partial name.

If I gave offense by calling homophobia for what it is -- homophobia -- I seek your forgiveness. Yet I do hope you do not think dislike for gay people is in the same category as not having a taste for beets. It is prejudice every bit as vile as racism, and in some parts of the world, including our own, every bit as oppressive and fatal. People are murdered because they are gay, or even suspected of being gay, and in some countries they are arrested. Uganda is considering the death penalty for homosexuals.

Not very charitable, I hope you will agree.

And that brings me to my original post on this. I find it curious that none of my critics here have attempted to answer the question I pose: How much of your opinion about homosexuality is truly based on an honest read of the Scriptures, and how much of it is based on the conditioning of the culture, your family, your own psychological issues? Those are human precepts. They may have become "doctrines" but that may only prove how deeply embedded those prejudices are in human cultures.

Finally, to pretend the Bible is not a cultural document is simply absurd. To pretend that marriage is not cultural is even more absurd. One of the posters here mentioned "natural law." That was a very useful invention of the Catholic Church to attempt to get underneath the cultural layers of Scripture to get at the Gospel.

The advent of Natural Law spawned a great flowering of science in the West, and I would strongly argue that Natural Law can lead us to understand that a small but significant minority of the human species is hard-wired to be sexually attracted to the same sex. Did God make people that way to be cruel to them? I think not. Perhaps God made them that way to teach the rest of us about the deeper meaning of love, relationships and blessings, and how love, relationships and blessings are not just about procreation.

Again, thank you for your participation in this conversation, and for putting your name with your comments. You are one of Christ's Redeemed, and so are many others -- including some gay people I know.

Randy Cone said...

Beets and homosexuals are in the same category when one is attempting to demonstrate that everyone who dislikes homosexuality does not suffer from homophobia. Many who dislike homosexuality do so for the same reason that they may not like beets or fat people or skinny, short, tall, etc. I doubt that you really paid attention to my message, or perhaps you did not understand it.
Labels, such as 'fag' or 'homophobic' are terms that are intended to demean others, and work very well to stifle open and honest debate. Homophobia is term coined with the intention of demeaning others. Do you have any proof that Kevin is homophobic? I see nothing in his post that indicates an "unreasonable fear", or a phobia.
My original post was made in wonderment as to why a Christian Reverend would resort to directing such a term toward another person who posted an opinion that does not seem to indicate what you accuse him of.
Our society is filled with inventions and practices which attempt to change God's creation by separating the sowing from the reaping. We want the carnal pleasure and leasure, but not the inconvenience of the 'side effects'. We want to eat and eat but not get fat, so we have invented sterile foods, which allow us to slather our tastebuds, but have no nutritional value, and so do not nourish the body. We want to enjoy frequent sexual pleasure, but not get pregnant and have children so we invented many deviant ways of preventing the fruits of intercourse, including condoms, pills, sterilization, oral and anal sex, partial birth abortion, etc. I could go on and on showing that our society is replete with ways we have changed God's nature into a carnal, sterile world.
In my opinion, homosexuality is no different than most other ways we attempt to enjoy pleasure, without the fruit or consequences.
I do dissagree that homosexuality is 'hard wired' as you say. No more than I am hard wired to like blondes rather than brunettes, or tall women rather than short, or slender rather than fat, or asian rather than caucasian.
It is a choice. Free will.
Homosexuals are no different than any other human beings in that they have free will. I can choose celibacy or I can choose carnality of great variety.
There is only one unforgivable sin, and homosexuality is not on that list.
How many of us attempt to justify our behavior, our choices, our churches precepts, and how many of us are really attempting to find God?
You and I do agree on one thing Reverend, and that and google are what led me here in the first place. We MUST separate precept from truth. There is only ONE truth.
One of Christs redeemed,
Randy Cone

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Dear Randy,
Once upon a time, I used to agree with you on this. I really did. It took me awhile to discover that I was wrong, and very, very wrong. I also discovered that my attitude was helping to foster a terrible prejudice against homosexuals, and that my prejudice had real consequences for real people.

Homosexuality is not a choice, it is how people are born, just like being left-handed (which is also a minority of people).

I am a very hard-wired heterosexual. I cannot imagine how someone of my gender would be attractive to me in the way women are attractive to me. Homosexuality would not be a pleasure to me. It would not be a choice.

But it is how some people are hard-wired, and they find people of the opposite sex to be unattractive. If you don't believe me, talk to some gay and lesbian people and hear their stories. It is not about hedonistic pleasure, but about finding love with someone, and in their case, the someone happens to be of the same sex.

Humans did not invent homosexuality. God invented it, and that should pose the question: for what purpose? (see previous comment)

For me, it also took a more careful read of Scriptures, in the context of culture, history and the nuances of ancient languages, to understand that they do not say quite what you think they say. The dominant Christian culture does not have this right.

The Scriptures do talk of an ethic based on love and commitment. Everyone is capable of sin, and capable of sinning within their orientation. Heterosexuals and homosexuals are all quite capable to promiscuity and dishonesty, and therein is where the Scriptures have a great deal to say.

I know I am saying some things you don't want to hear. All I can ask is that you be open-minded, and again, let me pose the question you are avoiding:

How much of your attitude about homosexuality is based on your culture, your upbringing and your own personal issues? In short, human precepts?

By the way, I don't like beets either. But they are vegetables, not human beings.