Tradition to Blame: A Further Look at Progressive Theology

When I wrote last week about Love and Relationship I had no real intention to follow up that post. There were (and still are) things to say about defining terms like “progressive theology,” and there’s something to say about progressive revelation. But this week I encountered another example of progressive logic that startled me so much I felt the need to spend some time with it. It is the idea that Traditional Christian teaching on sexuality is in some sense the cause of sexual dysfunction. The more I think about it, the more I think it identifies another feature of progressive theology that we’ve got to try and dissect.

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If you’ve been reading the news, then you know that there has been a series of massive, deeply disturbing revelations about sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic church. Responses have been grieved, frustrated, and angry, and in the midst of this all there is a strong desire to explain or rationalize the goings on. One piece, produced in part by the scandal, was from Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option and chief editor of the journal The American Conservative. He published a story and interview with a man named Gabe Giella, a gay, former Catholic, former seminarian, who recounts some of his horrifying experiences in seminary. (Long story short: the seminary was full of sexually deviant individuals, and when he didn’t play along, he was the one who got removed.) The article is worth reading in whole, and I recommend it strongly, but the key paragraph that startled me is the following. Giella writes,

Sexual secrecy is the currency in the church and learning how to use it is almost treated like an art form in seminaries. This culture has been woven into the fabric of Roman Catholic clergy culture for centuries. The church’s strict and absolute regulations around sex and sexuality which themselves are created and promulgated by the very men who breach them provide a perfect cover for those whose own sense of sexuality is without boundaries, regulation, or integration. Sexual secrecy and blackmail is the clergy’s bitcoin by which position, power, and control are bartered in the shadows, costing children and adults alike their faith, their safety and well being — and in some cases, their lives.

Now, before I comment on this, I want to make something really clear. My intention today is not to reflect upon Catholic practice and faith. As a rule, I keep my commentary on current events to those issues with which I have some personal involvement—I blog about conservative evangelicals, and I largely leave the issues of Orthodox, Catholic, or other believers to themselves. I think that’s only fair, and today’s post is really no different. I am not commenting, chiefly, on the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Serious commentary, and the business of criticizing and proposing solutions to that problem, is the purview of faithful Catholics (who, I add, have their work cut out for them and need our prayers). But in the comments I read from Giella, I detected elements of progressive thinking that I’ve encountered much more broadly. It is those elements that I want to treat with now.

Pope_Monkey see no evil

Yeah, but what about smelling evil?

First, there are a few things that Giella says that are quite important for us to hear. Chief among them is the role that secrecy plays in situations like the one he encounters. Secrecy gives added, corrupting power to sin, and in a context like a Catholic seminary, the secrecy of sexual desire—especially same-sex desire—must be necessarily strong. The wicked danger of this, however, is not simply that men keep quiet about their sexual struggles, but rather that secrecy is utilized as a tool of further suppression. And it certainly seems that in some circumstances suppression of talk about a situation is regarded as a solution to the problem, so that if we don’t talk about the elephant in the room, perhaps it will go away.

Another critically important aspect of Giella’s comments is his separation of gay priests from pedophile priests. Clearly, in the Venn diagram of these categories, they are not the same thing. There are gay men who are not pedophiles, and there are pedophiles who are not gay. Giella, and the other progressive thinkers I am familiar with, are right to reject the false equivalency that many traditional Protestants hold with regard to these categories. One does not necessarily mean the other.

Venn Diagram Template

Giella is not the only person who I’ve encountered recently who stresses this distinction, and he and the others I’ve read press it even further. They reject any material link whatsoever between desire for homosexual sex, and desire for homosexual sex with boys. For them, it is not a Venn diagram at all, with an overlap of homosexual and pedophile priests, but rather two completely separated circles, reflecting two completely different types of individuals. This makes a kind of sense, if one of your fundamental presuppositions is that homosexual attraction is a good. To the degree that you are committed to that claim, you must consequently reject any association between homosexual desire and categories of deviant desire (of which pedophilia would be one).

Since (on this line of thinking) deviant sexual desires cannot, by definition, account for homosexual and pedophiliac priests, something else must account for this. It is this ‘something else’ that I’ve detected in Giella’s rhetoric, namely, that the tradition itself is somehow responsible for creating this situation. Consider one of his sentences again, “The church’s strict and absolute regulations around sex and sexuality which themselves are created and promulgated by the very men who breach them provide a perfect cover for those whose own sense of sexuality is without boundaries, regulation, or integration.” The language of ‘integration’ is loaded. Earlier in Giella’s piece he speaks about integrated sexuality, which means, effectively, living openly as an ‘out’ individual. And the suggestion, however subtle, is that somehow it is the Church’s traditional, outdated, and repressive teaching on sexuality that is the real cause of the sex abuse scandals.

Gay Priest

Rev. Krzysztof Charamsa, left, and his boyfriend Eduard. He has lost his position in the Vatican. One also wants to ask, How can ‘integration’ be complete when you must also deny your vows? Isn’t there a disintegration at play as well? The presumption is that living ‘out’ is more honest, even if it means committing perjury. 

Think about this further. If ‘secrecy’ has created a climate of sexual sin, then what better way to address that secrecy than living openly, or ‘out’? The solution hinted at is that if the Church were to update its teaching on sexual morality, these problems would go away.

This, it seems to me, taps into a foundational aspect of Progressive theology—chiefly, and even embedded into the name, the aspect of progress. The logic runs something like this: we know more about sexuality than any time in history. Our knowledge, not surprisingly, exceeds that of the New Testament authors, who were entrenched in their first century worldview. Consequently, our new knowledge demands a re-thinking of those old (i.e., outmoded) sexual ethics. We have matured out of our old cultural taboos, and now we know that homosexual desire is not only not an evil, but a positive relational good. Our teaching must be adjusted accordingly.

Here’s the twist, though. Adherence to the old teaching is not only backwards and anti-progress, it is also dehumanizing. If I proclaim a traditional Christian sexual ethic, which condemns all homosexual practice, then I might be participating in a kind of abuse. My teaching is contributing to the fracturing of personalities, to the denial of central humanity, and even (on some accounts) to increased suicide. This, to me, explains why many of the Progressive Christians I’ve encountered view their teaching as a kind of liberation. They are ‘releasing’ people from the strictures of tradition to live full, ‘integrated’ lives.

Love is a human right

Human flourishing, in other words, cannot exist without sexual freedom.

There is so much to say at this point that I despair of saying it all. I think I will try to say only three things. First, I reject wholesale the narrative of ‘progress.’ Since the time of the Enlightenment, it has been a common enough (and false) claim that our new knowledge is superior in every way to the knowledge found in Christian teaching. It was there that the beginnings of the science and religion debate began to take shape. Heady with new scientific discoveries, Enlightenment thinkers readily dismissed the whole of Christian teaching, or even re-edited it to meet their specifications. They were guilty, then as now, of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” They didn’t evaluate the old ways of thinking on their own terms—instead, they were prejudiced toward their present and weighted the scales unfairly toward the past. New is not always better. With regard to modern sexual ethics, it is worth noting just how new they are in the history of the human race. Whatever claims they make to scientific basis and universality, these are fundamentally untested theories.

Second, there is something wrong, and even dishonest, about the rejection of categories of ‘disorder’ when discussing homosexual desire. On a biological, even evolutionary account, the purpose of sexual desire is the creation of more members of our species. To do that requires one member of each gender—sperm and egg. It follows that same-sex attraction, if we start with an evolutionary biological account of the human, is an obvious deviation from the norm. It reflects a disordered desire on the part of the individual. I want what I ought not to want as a sexual human being. To turn and sanctify the disorder does not and can not bring the person to greater integration. Instead, it reflects a kind of sanctified nihilism where this world, and its desires, and a form of temporal happiness, are all that matters. That, to me, is anti-Christianity.

Finally—and while this is the most important argument for me it may seem like the weakest—I have faith in the Spirit of God that He has not deceived us in the Scriptures brought down to us. Granted, there are crucial differences between the ancient world and our modern one. Granted, there are commandments and practices which appear to have lost the sting which binds them to us (e.g., women with head coverings, casting lots, etc.). But the Scripture presents a picture of the human person which has not changed—that I, and you, are made in the Image and likeness of God, that there are desires within my body that war against my living out of that image, that I am commanded to resist and submit those very desires to God’s Spirit in obedience, and that obedience looks a great deal like crucifixion of the self.

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St Anthony, patron of those who resist the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

Here, as with last week, it hasn’t really been my intention to argue with the line of Progressive Theology that I’ve encountered. In both cases, my goal has been to try and single out and bring a degree of clarity to an element of what is an admittedly large and complex body of thought. A proper argument against Progressive Theology, as I see it, would require a far more robust analysis of the concept of ‘progress,’ and with that a commensurate discussion on the role and sources of authority.

Love and Relationship: Some Insights into Progressive Theology

If you’ve ever been out of your depth, then you’ll know how I felt several months ago, attending a theological conference whose starting points were deeply entrenched in progressive ideology. The people were friendly, the discourse was generally courteous, but I found myself holding little sympathy for the presuppositions and arguments of my fellow attendees. It was an odd experience, but probably a good one, because I think it’s really important to try to understand what makes other people tick.

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One moment, in retrospect, has given me quite a lot to think about. Some scholars had presented a paper, and in that paper there was a footnote which casually noted, without argument, that gay and lesbian desires were critically different from other sexual desires for things like adultery. The paper itself had little to do with these issues, but this kind of thinking was generally assumed all around, part of the progressive baggage of the conference, par for the conference course. One more traditionally minded attendee, however, chose to ask a question at this point focusing on that footnote. He pressed the presenters to clarify their casual and undefined distinction between types of sexual behaviour, which would condone one kind of sexual activity (homosexuality) while condemning another (adultery). The instant he asked his question the whole room changed. I could feel the tension visibly rise, heads shook in disbelief, a woman behind me began grumbling angrily not-quite-under-her-breath, and the cheerful congeniality of assumed liberality was swept away in sudden righteous indignation.

Another attendee offered a response, and it is her response that has stayed with me these past months. She posited that the difference between adultery and homosexual relationships is that “while marriage builds relationships, adultery breaks them.” This was met with general and widespread affirmation, and as a result the tension decreased, heads nodded in agreement, there were murmurs of assent, and the ordering of progressive assumptions had been restored for the moment. Here, I realized, is a crucial piece of logic which appears to be generally adopted by progressive-minded Christians. Naturally, I wanted to dissect it more.

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One of my favourite demotivators, reminding me of the importance of keeping my head down.

As far as I can tell the basic premises of her logic appear to be as follows:

Premise 1: God is love.

Premise 2: Love is manifested in relationships.

Premise 3: Things that build relationships are good.

Premise 4: Things that break relationships are bad.

It seems to follow, then, that since sexuality is an expression of human desire for relationship, homosexual unions—i.e., marriages—must be good because they build relationships, which manifest love, of which God is the image. This is how adultery can be distinguished from homosexuality, because the one breaks relationship (violating God’s nature), while the other builds it (honoring God’s nature).

If, as my limited experience seems to attest, this is the logic that operates among many progressive Christians, then it makes sense of a few things. First, it explains why, for them, monogamy is used as justification for homosexuality. If the essence of marriage is found not in biology but in a concept of “committed, covenantal relationship,” then homosexual unions must be good if they are committed and covenantal. The argument makes it feel as if arguing against homosexual marriage is to argue against marriage itself, and how can you argue against that? Second, it provides a clear example of a kind of ‘Bible within the Bible’ thinking where, basically, the love commands of the New Testament trump all other laws and regulations. Beyond even this, the love commands trump the ethical teaching of the New Testament itself. Since we know that God is Love, we can use that knowledge to make judgments about all other ethical behaviors in the present, homosexual love inclusive.

Love wins 3

 

There are lots of problems with this kind of thinking. In another post I plan to spend more time with the question of ‘Bible within Bible’ (AKA, Progressive Revelation). There is also a significant problem regarding the definition of terms—what justifies the above definitions of “love” and of “marriage”? These terms have been insufficiently queried, but I don’t intend to home in on those today. Instead, today I want to focus solely on the statement I heard at the conference, that, in essence, what builds relationship is good, and what breaks it is bad.

First of all, is it true that everything that “builds relationship” is good? Let’s consider some cases. What if I profess a love for (consensual) degrading sex acts, where sexual pleasure is experienced in proportion to the level of degradation? If such a relationship is consensual, and monogamous, but degrading to the Imago Dei, can it still be a good? Or what if I profess a love for sex (consensual) with underage boys? Moreover, what if I am ‘monogamous’ in such a sexual relationship? If the concepts of ‘love’ and ‘relationship’ in a blanket sense cover each of these types of relationship, then we retain no ground from which to proscribe certain ‘loves.’

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Nambla is an actual organization that advocates to legalize “consensual” adult-child sexual relationships.

Alternatively, think of the following case: imagine a husband and wife in monogamous marriage. However, the husband has become convinced that he wishes to invite another woman into the relationship, thus shifting into polygamy. His motives are based on an ethic of love—I love you (wife 1), and I love you too, (wife-to-be 2), and I think that the three of us together will increase our love. The polygamous marriage, by increasing the love-quotient in the relationships, should be a relationship-building good. However, might it not follow that if wife 1 refuses to enter into the polygamous relationship, then she becomes the culpable party, choosing a sinful rejection of relationship rather than the polygamous building of relationship?

There’s more. Isn’t it the case that sin also “creates relationships”? If I commit adultery, I may have broken a relationship with my wife, but at the same time I’ve also created a relationship with another woman. In fact, in any situation where I wrong someone, haven’t I generated a relationship with that person—however decrepit? If I sire children and abandon them, don’t we still have a ‘relationship’ even if it is one rooted in my own selfish sinfulness? If I economically exploit a poor person, do I not have a ‘relationship’ with that person, even if it is unjust by nature? If a given act of sin creates relationship, then it cannot be the case that all things that build relationships are good. In fact, in many of these cases that which breaks the relationship is in fact the greater good.

Rich Man and Lazarus_Eugene Burnard

Injustice binds the rich man and Lazarus together in relationship.

In each of these cases, the concept of love has been divorced from any meaningful reference points (whether historical or scriptural) and applied to the modern world as a sign of divine approval. But the fact remains that without some concept of ordered loves, we won’t be able to tell the pedophile that he is wrong, nor he who is pleased when God’s image is violated for his pleasure, nor, for that matter, the individuals who want to commit adultery and ‘break’ relationships on the basis of love found elsewhere, or love lost in the original relationship. What, in such a situation, is the benefit of a ‘monogamous covenant’? If love adjudicates all ethical matters, lack of love becomes justification for any number of wrongs. And the crucial fact is this: unless we have a way to distinguish between good and bad loves, and unless we have a way to distinguish between godly and forbidden relationships, we have no grounds whatsoever to proscribe any relationships or any loves, however reprehensible. Love cannot be its own justification, without definition and qualification, without falling into an inevitable, slippery slope of relational chaos.

And to this, I find myself asking: If only there were a place where we could locate, and study, such a definition…

Why Sex is Making us Morally Stupid

C.S. Lewis, writing on June 3, 1956 to a man who asked him about masturbation, offered the following striking and relevant advice:

For me the evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself. Do read Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell and study the character of Mr. Wentworth. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination. [Emphasis in bold added]

Obsession with the sexual life is obsession, in the end, with the self—it is a pure expression of the incurvatus in se, what in George MacDonald’s thinking is “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” When my sexuality is the measure of my life and relationships, then I am also removing from influence those people who would challenge me into real mortification. I have elevated my flesh in such an idolatrous way that any call to the willed death of the body is viewed with horror and suspicion. But the deeper danger of such lust, according to Lewis, is what this process does to my imagination. If my job is to extend beyond the prison of myself, and if my faculty of imagination is one of the key areas of my mind given to my by God to accomplish this task, then imaginative activity which corrupts and retards this process is a profound danger.

Claustrophobic Man Sitting

When the pursuit of bodily pleasure dominates a life, that person’s intelligence becomes suspect, and in time inevitably crippled. I was struck by this clearly while recently reading through Josef Pieper’s A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. He writes that “an unchaste will to pleasure has the tendency to relate the entirety of the sensory world, especially sensual beauty, to only sexual lust.” The unrestrained desire for pleasure begins to work its way through the perceptions of the individual until the sexual appetite defines all other appetites. Lust becomes synonymous with pleasure. Pieper continues, “Only a chaste sensuality can achieve true human capacity: to perceive sensual beauty, such as that of the human body, as beauty and to enjoy it, undisturbed and unstained by any selfish will to pleasure that befogs everything, for its own sake.” The mind which is dominated by porneia [the Greek word for sexual immorality], by pleasure, sees in bodies only objects for consumption, sees in women only opportunities to express itself in lust. Pornography’s unique power is in its ability to render the irrational rational. The consumer of porn maps onto his or her mind not only a set of images, but a certain way of thinking, and those pathways are carried away from porn and applied in the rest of life. Lust in this way inevitably cripples moral knowledge.

Why should this be the case? Because the eyes are the organ that perceives beauty. When the eye is no longer searching for beauty itself, but seeking to map onto the world an expression and application of its own lust, then that lust in time warps perception of the good. What is best, and what is preferable, become enslaved to my personal desires. Pleasure makes subjectivists of us all. In turn, with beauty and good both soured, the capacity to apprehend truth is also corrupted. In this way, a man or woman who is led by his or her sexual desire is engaged in a process of dehumanization. After all, who would fail to agree that a crippled capacity for beauty is dehumanizing? He who suffers porneia to thrive in his life is being reduced to brutishness and eventual stupefaction.

Disintegration_Cyril Rana

Flickr: Photo by Cyril Rana

Lest you think this simply academic, this diminished capacity for moral knowledge has been on vivid display in churches which have chosen to affirm what is traditionally, and Scripturally, considered to be sexual deviance. The general convention of the Episcopal Church, after the US Supreme court ruled Gay Marriage to be the law of the land, immediately introduced new services and prayers to bless such unions. One such prayer, introduced at that time, is recorded by Robert Hart, writing in the March/April 2016 issue of Touchstone Magazine:

An Episcopal priest named Kimberly Jackson, of the Diocese of Atlanta, read a prayer to begin their version of communion: “Spirit of Life, we thank you for disordering our boundaries and releasing our desires as we prepare this feast of delight: draw us out of hidden places and centers of conformity to feel your laughter and live in your pleasure.”

God, then, conveniently affirms our choices and “releases our desires”—He gives us what our warped imaginations desire. The result, today, is not only that such unions are blessed, but churches have paved the path for openly gay clergy to rise to the highest ranks of church office. Moral corruption is pervasive, and the capacity to see such corruption is curtailed. It is doubtful that the Church has faced since the days of Arius a crisis of moral knowledge more serious than the one which confronts it now.

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Pieper concludes his argument about purity and vision with the following phrase, “only he who looks at the world with pure eyes experiences its beauty.” Purity of sight is a necessary precondition to the apprehension of beauty, and thus by proxy of both goodness and truth as well. And yet, in a very real way it is impossible for humans to achieve perfect purity of sight, if only because, as Jeremiah says, “the heart is deceitful above all else, and is desperately sick” (17:9). The wickedness which corrupts my capacity for beauty, goodness, and truth, is born from within me. From whence will we find help to resolve this dilemma? Jesus’ words in the sixth beatitude come to mind—“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Purity precedes the vision of God—but purity is impossible on my own. Therefore I must request help from outside myself. In this, I think Jesus has also spoken an irony—it is not only that the pure will see God, but those who set their gaze upon God who will be rendered pure. The solution is to get our eyes off of ourselves and onto the ultimate source of goodness, truth, and beauty.

For too long we have allowed ourselves to imagine that there is a divide between our sexual purity and our capacity for moral intelligence, between our sexual conduct and our pursuit of knowledge. Silently, as we allow ongoing and unrestrained life to our lust, we are also strangling our awareness of the beautiful, the true, and the good. Only a sight that is reaffixed on the beauty and holiness of God will be able to rescue us from the horror and stupefaction of our own persistent and self-serving inward gaze. Only a renewed commitment to God as He is, and not God as we want Him to be, will rescue the Church from its frightening trajectory towards apostasy.