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False ultimacy

by Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (WordAlone Board Member)

August 22, 2003

I write these words a week after the controversial convention of the Episcopal Church USA in Minneapolis, and right before the biannual ELCA Churchwide Assembly convening in Milwaukee. These are exciting times: The Episcopalians last week confirmed their first openly gay man as bishop while the Lutherans this week hear updates on their own sexuality study. Nowadays sexuality issues are controversial in all mainline denominations.

When confronted with the sexuality question, it is tempting to pull out one’s best argumentative weapons and march into battle against warriors holding opposing views. photo of Dr. BielfeldtSuch a method certainly guarantees excitement. Unfortunately, as my teacher, Dr. George Forell, used to say, “the heat of an argument is generally inversely proportional to the amount of light thrown on the subject.”

The rhetoric on this issue has certainly ratcheted up in recent weeks. Conservatives bemoaning the confirmation of the gay bishop speak of the entire abandonment of the traditional Christian witness, liberals declare that gay bishops are not only allowable, but maybe even necessary for the proclamation of the gospel in our time. One Episcopalian bishop was recently quoted as saying that the presence of a gay bishop was an important “evangelical tool” today. So who is right?

I spend much of my time teaching and doing philosophy at a state university. In philosophy it is almost always the case that the question asked is more important than the answer that can be given it. It is the task of philosophers to ask why a particular question is important. What is it about our background assumptions that privilege this question as significant? Why, for instance, is it that we are no longer animated by the question whether each and every angel must be its own species? Why do we not discuss whether the Absolute can have relations, or whether it is in or beyond time? Why do we not argue any more about the relation of objective spirit to subjective spirit?

This question of the question is important for theology as well. Why is it that certain questions become theological questions at a particular moment in time? Specifically, why has the question of same-sex blessings and openly gay pastors and bishops become an important theological question now? We are asking the question of what drives the question. What is the source from which the question arises and what is the goal of the asking of this question?

To ask the question of what drives a theological question is, however, itself a theological question. In asking the question of the question we are engaged in doing a theology of culture, we are interested in uncovering implicit claims of ultimacy—for real questions point to what is ultimately significant for us. Thus it is that in asking the question of the gay question, we can look for the claim of ultimacy contained in the question itself. We ask why it is that this question is so important; why is it is asked even when its answering risks sundering irreparably the ECUSA and maybe even the ELCA. Why in our time is the gay question so important?

It is important to point out that in answering this question, we are not interested in the causally proximate mechanisms that produce its import: TV shows, Hollywood pronouncements, op-ed columns, etc. We are rather interested in the very conditions for the possibility of these mechanisms producing import. What general set of background assumptions privilege the question of the blessing of same sex unions as a theological question? What general set of assumptions make it seem important whether or not an openly gay man or woman can serve as pastor or bishop?

When we ask the question of the question, we are interested in discerning what the Germans call “ Geist” or “spirit”; in asking the question of the question we are trying to mime the contour of the “Geist” or our time, the “ Zeitgeist.” Such a question queries the underlying set of assumptions and values driving the questions of society. What background assumptions and values seem so true or obvious, that even questioning them makes one feel uncomfortable?

My own opinion is that there is a collections of assumptions that specifically impel the homosexual question as significant in our time. I believe that these assumptions are so fundamental to the average American, that they constitute a more “bedrock” set of beliefs than any issues pertaining to sin, salvation and the Judeo-Christian God.

These assumptions comprise a profound existential commitment to democratic egalitarianism. The average American (or First World inhabitant) believes that each and every person is fundamentally unique and that each possesses an inviolable and inalienable locus of rights. (Why this is so is, of course, not a question much considered in contemporary culture, but that it is so is inarguable.) This locus of rights is grounded in the fundamental right of the pursuit of happiness. Because happiness is subjectively understood nowadays—it is, in fact, a set of mental states or an overriding existential orientation—each person can be said to exist for the acquisition of happiness subjectively considered, that is, to exist for the acquisition of pleasure, broadly conceived.

If this is the bedrock belief of our culture, that is, if this belief has ultimacy, then anything that contravenes it must be understood as an attack upon that ultimacy, as an attack upon one’s god. For someone who assumes most fundamentally the right for the pursuit of pleasure, the prohibition that people who have sex in different ways cannot hold important public offices in the political institution known as the church can only be understood as a disenfranchisement of their rights; it is to treat someone who is different as somehow inferior. This is clearly wrong and anyone who condones such disenfranchisement really attacks the very plank upon which contemporary democratic civilization is based. Speaking theologically, to be against the blessing of same sex unions or the establishment of openly gay pastors or bishops seems to deny the god that actively guides our decision-making, the god of democratic egalitarianism.

At the last WordAlone Board meeting, we wrestled with the question of what most generally the WordAlone movement stands for. We decided that at its base, WordAlone upholds and trumpets the traditional Protestant critique that nothing earthly can be divine. If, as John Calvin said, the human mind is “a factory of idols,” then human beings will by nature always seek to make something God that is not God, they will naturally hold things as ultimate that are really not so. (Paul Tillich called this critique of this human proclivity to elevate the conditioned to the level of the unconditioned, the “Protestant Principle.”) WordAlone embodies this “Protestant Principle” in its critique of Called to Common Mission, for it senses in this document a tendency to divinize church, a tendency to “transubstantiate” it into something that escapes (albeit fleetingly) the conditions of sin and waywardness that characterize everything earthly.

Similarly, WordAlone must operate to identify other false divinizations, other false ultimacies of our time. It must function to point out the conditions that call forth the gay question as a fundamental question. Instead of merely answering the question, WordAlone must function to defrock it; it must clearly display the implicit idolatry in its very asking. Both sides of the battle that take this question as ultimately significant must be chastised. The One who is ultimately significant is He who died on the Tree for us. There shall be no other gods before that one.

Luther claimed that the fundamental sin of human beings is that they want to be God instead of allowing God to be God. Let us always recognize the masks that our own drive to be God take; let us never cease to call a thing what it is. While the finite can hold the infinite, it can never become it.