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'Take Yourself as the Starting Point'...Controversy over Sexuality in the ELCA

by Walter Sundberg (Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

April, 2004

photo of Dr. SundbergI want to begin my reflections tonight on this very difficult subject of what the church should affirm and bless as permissible sexual expression, and what it should reject as impermissible, by quoting from an ancient source. His name is Monoimus. He lived in the late second century. We are told he was an Arabian. He is remembered as one of those who challenged Christian faith from within as part of the heretical movement called Gnosticism. Gnosis is a Greek word that means “knowledge.” Gnostics were those who claimed that they had special or even secret knowledge that revealed the truth of what was required for the fulfillment of human life in relation to God.

“Man is a universe,” said Monoimus, “originating” in himself; he is not predestined; he is master of his own fate. In light of this gnosis or special knowledge, Monoimus goes on to say:

Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, “My God, my mind, my thought my soul, my body.” Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate. . .If you carefully investigate these matters you will find [God] in yourself.

This is a powerful idea. The fact that was rejected by the church as heresy does not take away from its force and attractiveness. St. Augustine once observed that only significant souls produce heresies. I think this is true. It is why heretics are remembered, why seminarians study them as part of their schooling in the faith. Do not forget that heresy in the church has never come across as a vulgar or bad idea or an outrageously immoral claim that can be dismissed out of hand. Rather, heretics always appear to us as appealing, even compelling, able to reach the deep recesses of our being, urging us to confess: `This is most certainly true.’ In the economy of salvation, the Almighty has made room for heresy—a Greek word that means choice or faction or particular opinion. God wants us to confront these choices; by them he tests us in order that we might come to know the false alternatives to His intention for our lives and self-consciously and in full knowledge reject them: “There must be haereses [choices, factions] among you,” says St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine” (I Cor. 11.19).

Monoimus presents a position on Christian faith that is one of these choices: the choice that says `I will make faith a reflection of my needs and desires.’ Monoimus speaks across the ages as a significant soul. His haeresis offers a tempting alternative to the faith of the Bible. To struggle against him is to test the genuineness of our commitment to God and Christ.

Let us look at what Gnosticism has to say more closely.

Paul Tillich argues in his Theology of Culture that there has been through the centuries basically two ways of approaching God:

In the first way man discovers himself when he discovers God; he discovers something identical with himself although it transcends him. . .something. . .from which he never has been and never can be separated. In the second way, man meets a stranger when he meets God. Essentially they do not belong to each other. They may become friends. . .But there is no certainty about the stranger man has met.

In the teaching of Gnosticism, we encounter the first way with a vengeance: man discovering himself in the seeking of God. According to the Gnostics, the trouble with orthodoxy is that its God is a stranger. Orthodoxy is wrong because it alienates humanity from the uninterrupted quest for the self. St. Augustine’s doctrine of election, Luther’s witness to the "alien work" of God: these theologies are repellent to the Gnostic.

The rejection of the "stranger God" is fundamental to the theology of the most famous of the Gnostics, Marcion, said to be the son of a bishop, whose witness, like Monoimus, was made in the second century. To get rid of the `stranger God’—whom he readily acknowledges is the Creator of this world and fashioner of its natural order and its rules for living—Marcion proposed that Christians change the Bible. He constructed a canon of sacred texts that included one of the Gospels and the letters of Paul, but excluded the Old Testament because of the inhuman character of the creator God, Yahweh. Marcion does not like Yahweh. He is repelled by what Yahweh demands of his followers. And so out goes the Old Testament! If something gets in your way; if a sacred text teaches something you don’t like; get rid of it.

Adolf von Harnack, the great German historian of doctrine who lived a century ago, in his great book on Marcion, asserts that Marcion is the first theologian to place Law and Gospel in opposition. Law—which consists of the natural order, the strictures on physical behavior, the suffering, pain, and heartache that prevents human life from its fantasy of easy fulfillment—Law is not true religion. True religion is Gospel, the fulfillment of the self and its desires It is the unconditional love that Jesus demonstrates, a love for us as we are in our authentic selves. Jesus represents the true and better God, far above the terrible demiurge Yahweh who made this world. Jesus against the God of the Old Testament: this true theology!

There is so much that is familiar to us today in the Gnostics of long ago: The Law as repression; the Gospel as fulfillment; constructing a sacred text that fits a predetermined interpretation, the measure of which is man; the rejection of a God who judges; the definition God’s love as acceptance of us and complete identification with us. The ideas of Monoimus and Marcion may have been written long ago, but they could have been written today.

In Europe, Gnostic ideas have been a staple of modern theology and biblical interpretation in the university since the Enlightenment. In American culture, they are even more at home. Gnosticism in this country does not require the special pleading of a professor—although professors are happy to oblige. Rather, Gnosticism readily finds popular expression and acceptance; and it has done so from the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman in the nineteenth century to Robert Schuller and Shirley Maclaine today. It is evident in the general therapeutic mind-set under which we all live, especially the educated white middle class. “Take yourself as the starting point” says Monoimus. Here is what Emerson writes in his essay “Self-Reliance,” one of the classic texts of American literature: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” “Take yourself as the starting point” says Monoimus. Here is what Walt Whitman writes in “Song of Myself”: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself. . .I know I am solid and sound. . .I know I am deathless. . .One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself.” “Take yourself as the starting point” says Monoimus. Here is what Harold Bloom, that prickly but enormously influential literary critic, says in his book The American Religion (1992), after surveying popular culture and finding the likes of Robert Schuller and Shirley Maclaine: “We are,” Bloom writes, “a religiously mad culture, furiously searching for the spirit, but each of us is subject and object of the one question, which must be for the original self, a spark or breath in us that we are convinced goes back before the creation.”

Last year we witnessed a compelling illustration of this at work in the Episcopal Church. In its convention last summer in Minneapolis, the Episcopal Church ratified the election of Gene Robinson as bishop, thus preparing the way for his consecration. Why did they do it? There was, after all, enormous pressure not to do it. A split was threatened; turmoil in the ecclesiastical leadership assured. The denomination was already losing members at a steady clip; they have been declining for forty years. This makes the numbers worse. The church, already losing revenue, is now facing a huge shortfall. The Archbishop of Canterbury asked them not to proceed. Peter Akinola of Nigeria, Archbishop of the largest Anglican Church on the planet, twenty-five million members, pleaded with them in person at the convention not to do it. His church is in a spiritual, cultural, and political struggle with Islam for the soul of his nation. He has to deal with polygamy, accepted by Muslim and tribal traditions alike, and Aids that is killing Africans by the tens of thousands.. If there is any time when the church should stand firm on its tradition regarding sex and marriage it is now, he said. The mission of Christ in the world is at stake. Despite these warnings and pleas, the Episcopal Church convention members went right ahead. And Gene Robinson stood up, the media revolving around him, offering the world as his stage; and he said proudly, "In me God is doing a new thing." Why did the Episcopalians do it?

Leader Harding, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Stamford, Connecticut, made the attempt to explain why in a recent issue of the monthly journal First Things (February, 2004). He is a critic of the decision of his church. He declares that when all is said and done, it was finally the Siren song of Gnosticism that led Episcopalians to make their haeresis, their choice. Permit me to quote him at length:

The quintessential American Religion is the quest for the true and original self which is the `pearl of great price,’ the ultimate value. Finding the true self requires absolute and complete freedom of choice unconstrained by any sources of authority outside the self. Limits upon personal freedom and choice are an affront to all that is sacred to the American Religion. When the self-determining self finds `the real me’ salvation is achieved. . .Gene Robinson was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire not in spite of being gay, not as an act of toleration and compassion toward gay people, but because he is gay and as such an icon of the successful completion of the quest to find the true and original self. . .[D]ivorcing his wife and leaving his family to embrace the gay lifestyle is not some unfortunate concession to irresistible sexual urges but an example of the pain and sacrifice that the seeker of the true self must be willing to endure. That natural, organic, and conventional restraints must be set aside is a time-worn Gnostic nostrum. . .Because Gene Robinson has ‘found himself’ he has. . .found God and is naturally thought to be a `spiritual person’ and a fit person to inspire and lead others. . .

I think Rev. Harding has got it right: down deep this is what when on in the Episcopal Church last summer; this accounts for the enthusiastic willingness to put the denomination at risk.

This is the force that we face in the ELCA. We face it every day. Each of us sways to the Siren song of Gnosticism in our own way. How many of us pastors use Law and Gospel in our sermons to make the Bible say what we want it to say? How many of us who belong to the educated white middle class, absorbed in a culture of personal fulfillment, seek the exaltation of the self? Yes, we feel the force of ancient Gnosticism every day. vBut we are also going to face it, in the particular way that the Episcopal Church faced it, next summer when we meet in Assembly and deliberate on the matter of homosexuality.

How will this challenge come to us in the ELCA? It won’t be through an election of a bishop as in the Episcopal Church. Rather it will be through the assessment of the work of a biased committee on sexuality that has produced a report entitled Journeying Together Faithfully. This report does two things to advance the goal of approving homosexual behavior. First, in a Background Essay on Biblical Texts, it assiduously considers seven key biblical passages in both the Old and New Testaments that speak to the question of homosexual behavior. It is clear from this supplement that the plain reading of these passages by ordinary folk sitting together with the Bible on their laps is not enough. No: These passages must be interpreted; set in context; explained by experts. But this is easier said than done. What the supplement ends up really being about is the differing interpretations of educated elite scholars. On each passage the only thing that can be clearly stated that there are differences in interpretation, especially with regard as to whether or not the meaning of a particular passage is best confined to the historical context in which it arose; or if the passage is powerful enough to transcend ancient time and so be binding on Christians today. Since all these seven passages can readily be filed under the category of Law and not Gospel, and since Lutherans often—not always, but often, oppose Law and Gospel; so much so that critics of Lutheran theology have wondered about our Marcionite tendency—it is not hard for Lutherans to claim that all of these passages of Law should be confined to the past, thus having no authority on us today. Only the Gospel really counts. The Gospel always transcends context. The Gospel is the love of Christ that affirms the believer in his or her identity as a self and promising him or her “life abundant.” By the time one completes the reading of this supplemental essay, one cannot but question whether Bible study on these passages should even be bothered with! Since the principle of Law and Gospel is clearer, and more important, than the literal or plain reading of biblical texts, one is left with grave doubts regarding any authority whatsoever ascribed to these seven passages. They are Law. What we really want is Gospel; and Gospel means the affirmation of the self.

This appeal to Gospel is reinforced in the study by an appeal to the Sacraments. This is the second way in which the study works to create sympathy for a change in church teaching regarding homosexuality. It does so by asserting that through participation in the Sacraments, each of us is validated in our experience and insight. I quote: “As members of a community formed by Baptism and sustained by the Eucharist, we enter the conversation as equals.” As the baptized we are “united in the body of Christ” affirmed “through the forgiveness of sins.” The confession of sin is not the basis of our equality—at least it is not emphasized in the report. Rather the focus is on Divine affirmation. Our “core experience”, says the report, is the “new life,” which is the sacramental gift. We thus search for truth trusting that our own experience does not separate us from God. That baptism involves the obligation to renounce the devil; that Jesus sets the Table “on the night in which he was betrayed” by his disciples and then down through the ages by us; that St. Paul warns us to examine ourselves lest we eat unto judgment; all of this does not seem to register in the report. The sacraments are construed exclusively as sweetness and light; in them there is no darkness; that would be too much of the “stranger God” of orthodoxy. What the report asserts is that your experience, whatever it might be sexually, is as valid as my experience, whatever it might be sexually. What we all contribute to the conversation is the journey of the self toward identity. I quote the study: “We contribute different experiences, sensitivities, joys, sorrows, skills, and abilities. These diverse gifts can enrich our conversations. . .” The Bible can provide “insight on our experience, including our experiences of sexuality.” Insight, however, is not the same thing as authority to judge. What really counts is engagement in an enriched conversation in which, because we are all sacramentally incorporated into the church, no one is turned away or rejected. In this conversation, God or Gospel can be found (I quote again) through our “sensitivities, joys, sorrows, skills, and abilities.” I hear old Monoimus calling:

Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, “My God, my mind, my thought my soul, my body.” Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate. . .If you carefully investigate these matters you will find [God] in yourself.”

I wish to say one final thing: While I know it is customary to applaud after a speaker at these occasions, to affirm what he says or at least to be polite, I ask that you not applaud. I feel very uneasy about standing before you tonight. In being critical of this important matter before the church, believe me when I say that I do not come before you from a position of moral superiority. I have not been the best of husbands or fathers; I am a sinner like each of you. And like the priest and Levite, I have passed on the other side of the road to avoid the neighbor in need. That I am invited to the Table of the Lord, is not grounded in my equality of insight, but rather because the Lord has set the Table “on the night in which he was betrayed”—betrayed by me. My warrant to speak, then, is not based on my personal virtue, but my obligation as pastor and teacher to exposit the Scriptures and to witness to what the Confessions call the magnus consensus or great consensus of the teaching of the church. That consensus warns us of the danger of Gnosticism. It is a danger that faces us today.