In June 2007, Commonweal magazine published two views on “Homosexuality and the Church.” It is the finest exchange I have read on the subject. The interlocutors are Luke Timothy Johnson (professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory’s Candler School of Theology) and Eve Tushnet (freelance writer). Once you read the exchange, you will understand the role that Scripture, experience, and tradition play in the church’s debate on homosexuality. Here is a salient excerpt from Tushnet, a lesbian woman who pursues the vocation of celibacy:
So it’s tempting to conclude that prohibitions against homosexuality are culture-bound, no more universally binding than the requirement that women cover their heads in church. It’s true that culture conditions how we read Scripture, and that as Christians we need to be open to the countercultural implications of the gospel. But this fact argues far more strongly against Johnson’s position than against the church’s. If we seek to overcome any aspects of our culture that conflict with the gospel, I’m not sure why we would expect the gay liberation movement-slightly over a hundred years old, and largely Western in character-to be less culture-bound, and therefore a better guide to the countercultural aspects of the gospel, than the Catholic Church. The church is bigger and older than you, me, or the very concept of the homosexual person. (The view that sexual orientation is intrinsic and constitutive of a person’s deepest identity comes from a school of psychology that owes very little to the gospel, and a great deal to anti-Christian forms of philosophical materialism.)
Experience is itself a kind of text, and texts need interpreters. How often have we thought that we understood our experiences, only to realize later that we had only the barest understanding of our own motives and impulses? We all know how flexible memory can be, how easy it is to give an overly gentle account of our own motivations, how hard it is to step outside our lifelong cultural training and see with the eyes of another time or place. To my mind, Johnson’s approach places far too much trust in personal experience. He views our experience as both more transparent and less fallible than it is. To take personal experience as our best and sturdiest guide seems like a good way to replicate all of our personal preferences and cultural blind spots. Scripture is weird and tangly and anything but obvious—but at least it wasn’t written by someone who shared all our desires, preferences, and cultural background. At least it wasn’t written by us. And so it’s necessary to turn at least as much skepticism on “the voice of experience” as Johnson turns on the voice of Scripture. It’s necessary to look at least as hard for alternative understandings of our experience as for alternative understandings of Scripture.
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Johnson begins by saying that his position “stand[s] in tension with Scripture.” But he then seems to use human beloveds as a kind of walking Scripture in themselves, able to contradict and correct the merely paper canon. So he writes:
“I think it important [for the integrity of our position] to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us.”
I’m not convinced this is how human love stories relate to the divine love story. Loving one another can be an echo of the love we receive from God; it can be the child of that love; it can be preparation for our own awestruck love of God. (I would argue that my erotic and romantic love of women has been all three of those things, at different times.) But our human experience, including our erotic experience, cannot be a replacement for the divine revelation preserved by the church. We must be careful not to let it become a counternarrative or a counter-Scripture.