Monday, September 6, 2010

David Fitch on Homosexuality: Continuing the Debate

David Fitch was gracious enough to reply to my post on his series of posts on homosexuality here. What a model of civil and mature theological debate! Thanks David, for the good points you made in that post.

First, David admits that he has a negative view of the approach of Evangelicalism to homsexuality and is concerned about the negative attacks on Evangelicalism by writers such as Mel White, Chris Hedges, Dan Gilgoff, Sam Harris, Randall Balmer, Christopher Hitchens etc. He writes:
"All these book caricature evangelicals and include the charge of duplicitous judgementalism on gay relations as part of the evidence. . . When so many people are saying the same things eventually we have to look at ourselves and ask, why do so many people think we are this way? Even if this is a media conspiracy, you have to at least ask why? I think this judgmentalist characteristic is something inherent in our evangelical approach to theology which for me in some ways is illustrated by Craig himself.
Of course I'm familiar with the charges made in these books; I'm teaching a seminar on the "New Atheism" in the Winter semester. But I'm totally unimpressed with the accusation of "judgmentalism on gay relations" from this crowd. After all, these are the people who ripped George Bush to shreds and who preach the moral superiority of the Left in the most judgmental terms possible with no sense of irony. They are just upset that Evangelicalism does not roll over and bless their self-indulgent, immature, promiscuous lifestyle of which "gay rights" serves as the symbol and highest and holiest expression.

If there is something "inherent in our evangelical approach to theology" that is the root cause of this antipathy from Sixties Radicals toward Evangelicalism, it must be something we share in common with the magisterial teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy. You may have noticed that Pope Benedict XVI has been attacked viciously by the liberal media, liberal Catholics and liberal Protestants for his uncompromising stand for traditional and Biblical sexual morality. So there must be something inherent in his theology that arouses such hatred and bile and I think I know what it is: a refusal to engage in theological revisionism in order to trim the teachings of the Church to the demands of a decadent, post-Christian culture.

My plea to David is to wake up to the fact that nothing he can say or do short of apostasy from the Faith ultimately will be enough to satisfy the critics of the Left. Cultural Marxists are determined to smash the Family as a root source of oppression and compromises are merely retreats so far as they are concerned.

David comments that he was surprised that his Emergent friends provided little push back to his position and that the push back came instead from the conservative direction. I would suggest that the explanation for both phenomena is that Emergent folks and I both read his writings as saying exactly the kinds of things the Emergent folks said just before they accepted the liberal view on homosexuality. They probably figured: "Just give him a bit more time."

Second, I want to challenge the use of the construct "Christendom." David writes:
These statements, to me, are a sign that Craig has become a thoroughly Christendom thinker, a shocking development given his excellent early work on Yoder in his academic career. He assumes that public statements a.) communicate what we believe about sexuality, b.) and somehow witness the gospel. . . . For now, I suggest that the passing of Christendom in many parts of the world demand we take an incarnational position in the world. This is what I have been trying to construct in our relation to sexual issues, sexual brokeness in the world. More than holding a Bible out in front of someone and declaring a few statements and then help that person “white knuckle” it, grit their teeth, and “hold fast,” I suggest sexual redemption comes from a true spiritual and bodily formation."
In these comments, David makes two theological moves I wish to challenge. One is the denial that preaching about sin and calling people to repentance is part of witnessing to the Gospel and the other is the implication that Christendom and "an incarnational position" are antithetical to each other.

With respect to the "Gospel" (i.e. the good news), we must preach both law and Gospel. Now if what David is arguing for is a Reformed correction to Luther, we might be able to agree. By that I mean that for Luther the Gospel is preached by first telling the hearer that he is a sinner and in danger of hellfire, which then prepares the way for the hearing of the good news of forgiveness. Calvin, while not totally denying the Lutheran approach of "Law and Gospel" does stress the order "Gospel and Law" by pointing out that we must hear the Gospel before we even can understand the depths of our sin. This point is stressed as well by Barth. Also, Calvin emphasizes the third use of the law, i.e. for sanctification and not merely for comprehending our sin and need of forgiveness.

Now, if David is following Calvin here, I applaud the move, but the crucial point for me is that Calvin preaches justification by faith just as strongly as Luther and does not deny the first two uses of the law even as he adds an emphasis on the third use. It all comes down to whether David is willing to say that the preaching of the Bible's condemnation of homosexual behavior is part of the Gospel in that it is part of the exposition of our sinful and lost condition out of which the Gospel saves us and also insofar as it defines part of the new life in the Spirit that God intends for those he justifies. To say or imply that preaching the sinfulness of sexual sin (of all kinds) is not part of the Gospel seems to me to go beyond the Reformation debates altogether and drift off into modernism. Some clarification here would be helpful.

On the issue of Christendom and the incarnational approach, I want to challenge David with the point made by Oliver O'Donovan that Christendom is the result of the Church on mission in the world between the first and second comings of Christ and make the claim that much of what is so lightly dismissed as "Christendom" by Anabaptist theology is incarnational insofar as it represents the attempt to embody holiness and the Christian life in the concrete, day-to-day institutions, practices, speech and life of actual, historical communities.

One of my problems with the ecclesiology of Stanley Hauerwas is that even after he has practically reduced all of Christian theology to ecclesiology (which is an exaggeration for effect on my part but one with a serious point), his ecclesiology seems remarkably thin and abstract. Where is the Church for him? I don't see it in the culturally-accommodated, modernist, liberal Protestant churches he describes (and defends) in his memoir as the churches he has attended throughout his career. This seems like an odd charge, I know, but it makes sense when you reflect on the strong pull the Roman Catholic Church has exerted on him and the fascination with which he examines the Mennonites. Both of those ecclesiologies are deeply embodied in history and very concrete embodied visions of Christian holiness. Both are also deeply entwined with "Christendom" in differing ways. Roman Catholicism was the Church of Medieval Christendom and, as Yoder points out, the Mennonites have always battled the temptation to become "mini-Christendoms."

When Anabaptist theology leaves the farm and goes to the academy it seems to me to come under the sway of the individualistic, abstract, ahistorical aspects of modernity and ultimately gnosticism. I am questioning the legitimacy of referring to the desire to appear non-judgmental to the pagans as "incarnational" because it seems to me to bow to the rootless cosmopolitanism of modernity rather than accepting the constraints of life in an embodied community. Being incarnational is much more complicated than simply rejecting "Christendom" and embracing a "Neo-Anabaptist Theology, which has to be "Neo-" because it is no longer rooted in an alternative culture.

1 comment:

Steve Carlson said...

Dr. Carter, if I may post a comment. I would totally agree with you when you say,

"My plea to David is to wake up to the fact that nothing he can say or do short of apostasy from the Faith ultimately will be enough to satisfy the critics of the Left."

But only if I thought David was actually trying to satisfy the critics of the Left. I don't see Dr. Fitch anywhere trying to satisfy anyone. What I see him doing is calling us to let go of our desire to push the Gospel of Jesus from a position of power. From his writing I understand he would have us emulate Jesus’ attitude on the cross: an attitude of humbleness, waiting on the Father to “make things right”, so to speak.

From his writing I also see Dr. Fitch holding true to an orthodox understanding of homosexuality. But I also see him calling us to stop and see the duplicity of the way we condemn homosexuality vehemently, but give only lip service to the moral and sexual deviancy in our own Evangelical world. This is what Dr. Fitch was saying when talked about “…duplicitous judgementalism on gay relations…”.

I know we are still in the “now and not yet”. One day, when Jesus returns and sets the world aright, sin will be no more. And so until then, we will sin. But where is the power of the Holy Spirit today that Jesus promised us? Is it power enough only for 50% of our marriages? Is it power enough only to keep a portion of our pastors and priests from falling to sexual sin? I see Dr. Fitch calling us to 1) quit pointing the finger of accusation at others and look hard at ourselves, 2) get out of our individualism and into community, 3) then become vulnerable to the Holy Spirit through confession and repentance.

As hard as we try to put up a mask of having it all together, people can see through it. People see through me all the time. What would it be like if we as the people of Jesus didn’t have to put on masks, but were able to let others see us maskless? Scary? Yep! I fear that more than almost anything. But what if the Holy Spirit was the power to keep our legs straight, our backs tall and our eyes clear? And we didn’t have to make it happen through our own strength?

I realize that I don’t need to defend David. But I thank you both for this conversation because I have learned much and been given a great opportunity to reflect on my life and beliefs.

Steve Carlson