My wife and I went to church a couple of months ago; a rare experience for us both. Invited by close Canadian friends in Toronto, we attended the Sunday morning service of their liberal Protestant congregation. We were honored to be asked and greatly impressed by much of what we heard and saw. Because this was the weekend of Gay Pride festivities, the day’s topic focused on love and respect for those long callously treated (by Christians as well as others) due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The theology of this group differs from many Christian churches in North America. The latter have until recently been more focused on the sin of “unsanctified” sex than on acceptance of love and pleasure outside rigid fundamentalist norms. In the view of most Christians in the past and many still today, sexual behavior is something in need of being sanctified. In its effect on the human experience, this “bad unless shown to be acceptable” approach differs greatly from “acceptable unless shown to be bad.” Sexual behavior should be constrained, of course, by the same ethical standards as other conduct. (For most humanists, the ethical limit is acting against the survival and flourishing of others rather than the alleged displeasing of a deity.)
Consequently, there is nothing in gay, transgender, lesbian, or, for that matter, “normal” sex in and of itself that has any moral implications. (The wide-ranging and outrageous concept of sin is addressed in a number of my posts, including “Sin,” July 18, 2014; “The sin of sin,” Jan. 2, 2015; “Escaping the evil of sin,” Jan. 20, 2015; “Sin and evil,” Jan. 18, 2015; and “The immorality of religion’s morality,” July 18, 2016. Posts dealing specifically with homosexuality include “Being civil about gay marriage,” June 30, 2013; and “Gay pride?” Nov. 16, 2013.)
In other words, unethical acts are unethical acts whether sex is involved or not. Sex acts themselves need not be a special category of ethics any more than is highway construction or hair style, though a person could be unethical about both. However, love and pleasure have long been subject to religion-inspired opprobrium. Indeed, to describe a person as immoral is more likely to suggest engaging in unapproved sexual behavior than in cheating a vendor, breaking promises, spreading rumors, or being unfair.
Much of Christianity over the centuries has seemed to take pride in how many things it can label as wrong, as if a moral code is better to the extent it denies sources and types of pleasure and happiness. (Further treatment of these topics can be found in my posts “Secular humanism goes beyond atheism,” Oct. 24, 2015; “Morality in secular humanism,” Mar. 16, 2015; “Morality is too important to be left to religion,” Jan. 2, 2014; “The moral neutrality of extramarital sex,” Mar. 28, 2015; “What’s in a word, say, ‘marriage’?” Apr. 29, 2015; “Lust,” June 16, 2015; and “Lust still OK, damaging sentient beings is not,” June 25, 2015.)
Our host congregation in Toronto exhibited a refreshing absence of intolerance of homosexuality we would have expected in many other Christian settings and in most Muslim settings. Of course, there may still be a modicum of bigotry in the congregants of even a liberal church. But in this one I discerned none and breathed freer air because of it. During the entire service and coffee-room chats that followed, I was aware of only acceptance, inclusion, and recognition of dignity. Additionally, beyond the gratifying liberality about previously taboo sexual behavior, something else struck me that related to the chief (if not solitary) true benefit of churches and similar religious organizations: the creation and nurturance of community. In a modern, especially urban society persons can be alone while in a crowd. Religious congregations perhaps more than any other institution can go far to rectify that estrangement (unrelated to whether their beliefs are true). I felt that warmth at work in this group.
Having said that, liberal Christians are still Christians and that implies belief in a supernatural authority that has rules for behavior, an afterlife with promised reward and threatened punishment, and commands to worship Jesus. But even humane conduct when based on faith has a built-in problem. When a field of inquiry is undisciplined by reason (as a greater or lesser part of every religion must be), it is impossible to predict where the untethered reckoning will take it. Bend a bit one way and you get a cruel treatment of unbelievers; bend a little another way, and you get great acts of kindness. If one person’s conviction points to one god or one dogma while another person’s points to a different one, how can inquiry ever be a shared, productive human endeavor?
When reason is not the common denominator, the foremost human tool loses its utility. Faith brings a necessary dilution of reason—that’s why it’s called faith—so that discrediting a faith-based doctrine that happens to lead to harshness simultaneously indicts the similarly unreasoned process that happens to lead to a gentler, humanistic world. In other words, even the kindest of religions bears an uncomfortable genetic kinship with the most brutal.
This is not to say that reasoned change at the margins can’t occur. When a person’s sense of kindness or helpfulness (humanistic values) are in opposition to his or her religion’s teaching, he or she must suppress one resource at the expense of the other. Such resolution can go either way. Many are the sincere persons whose religion calls them to be ruthless more than kind. Many are those whose religion calls them in the reverse direction. In either event, changing from an initial persuasion is greatly fraught because of the ingrained strength of religious faith in one instance and the pull of conscience in the other. Religions have been so successful in teaching that faith, not reason, points the way to truth, we can tear ourselves asunder when our reason or our commitment to something better has the audacity to prevail.
Why do these insights take so long to bloom? How often do we look back years or centuries later and wonder how the immorality of accepted morals was so widely overlooked. How could the morality Christians said was divinely inspired not take notice that slavery, subjugation of women, treatment of persons of color and gays were just wrong? I submit that our humanistic morality is slow to develop because the morality of religion has always included enough God-pleasing as to dilute those parts that actually benefit human beings. Fortunately, despite the fundamentalists’ death-grip on ancient rules and their questionable derivation, some theologians and some liberal Christians do abandon or adapt what their religion has taught, perhaps by redefining Christianity itself or by superimposing on it more humanistic features.
One such pacesetter is Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong, who has long advocated a Christianity stripped of its baggage of ancient misunderstandings. Consider a few lines from his extensive oeuvre: “God is not a being, external to the world, prepared to invade life from on high to establish the divine will on earth. That [is] . . . an expression of the yearning present in the childhood of our humanity to explain the inexplicable. . . God is a process into which we live. Life, love and being are the operative words. What actions expand life? What actions increase love? What actions enhance being? That is the arena in which good must ultimately be separated from evil. It will never be found within a code of yesterday. It will always be found in the struggle to live fully, to love beyond the boundaries of our security, in the affirmation found at the depth of our being [italics mine; jc]. Do we then dismiss the great eternal codes of the past? No, but we also do not install them into the status of ultimate and unchanging laws. We do, however, ascribe to them the wisdom of the ages and we give to our ancestors, who codified them, the courtesy of our attention.” [Quoted from Spong’s “The Ninth Thesis, Ethics,” Part XXX, of “Charting a New Reformation.” http://johnshelbyspong.com/essay-archives/%5D
Bishop Spong’s attempt to find in Christianity an essence worth reviving has features of both desperation and hope. “Once one removes the concept of God as a supernatural being,” he says, “the whole superstructure of traditional Christianity begins to crumble before our eyes. . . If you have identified Christianity with this dated portrait or theological construction . . . there is nothing of great value remaining.” But his message is saved from despair, by his humanist (not necessarily advertised by him as such) conviction that humans can and should, in fact, “live fully and love beyond the boundaries of our security.”
Spong’s position, along with other liberal theologians, is undoubtedly too liberal even for most liberal Christian churches, but its strong stand “provides cover” for important, albeit less comprehensive, overhaul of Christianity’s shortcomings. Even those small steps are difficult. In this vein, the personal story of the speaker on that Toronto Sunday was captivating. He had been Catholic. He had agreed with the Catholic position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, even authoring literature arguing for his church’s punitive view. Over time, as his sense of humanity overpowered his church’s view on the matter, his anti-gay position became harder to maintain.
By the time we listened to him, he’d left Catholicism and become an Episcopalian committed to spreading a gentler, more humane message. He did not take the easy way out, hiding behind the “hate the sin but love the sinner” dodge. There may be instances in which that expression is justified, but as the human path toward greater inclusiveness proceeds, there are many instances in which it is unconvincing. In these instances, love the sinner rings hollow, giving an excuse to hide our failure to seriously consider that blame may lie in the faith-based definition of sin, not in the ostensible sinner. We must beware, though, that challenging such definitions can unexpectedly call into question a far greater complex of belief, rarely an easy endeavor.
We are fortunate that sometimes one system of belief succumbs, albeit agonizingly, to another, incurring pain to which our speaker could have attested. The speaker’s strength in honoring his sense of decency above his faith was encouraging. I am thankful to have heard firsthand of both his struggle and his conclusion. But also deserving of recognition was the integrity of the church that sought to hear him, for undoubtedly it has grappled with harsh and hurtful elements of religion in order to move increasingly closer to a stand for civility, inclusiveness, and in the end, love.