Saturday, May 30, 2009

The big four issues for hermeneutics and human dignity

The concept of human dignity is simply the acknowledgment that each human being is to be respected, treated justly and with good manners, because human beings are special creatures within God's creation: the only beings 'made in God's image' (Genesis 1.27). Human dignity flows from this understanding of our creation: it is not earned and it belongs to us irrespective of subsidiary characteristics such as the colour of our skin or the level of our IQ. Many commandments in Holy Scripture reflect the concept of human dignity. A notable instance is the commandment not to kill. Traditionally Christians have been agreed on applications of this commandment such as prohibiting abortion. But there have also been disagreements over matters such as capital punishment and waging war. But right now the issues of the moment in respect of human dignity, especially as they impact on the Anglican Communion, are not centred on the commandment not to kill.

The biggest issue, at least in terms of media headlines, concerns (i) homosexuality, but there are some others close at hand. They do not necessarily generate headlines, but they are issues which cannot not be considered when we think about homosexuality in the context of 'hermeneutics and human dignity'. I suggest there are three further connected issues, and I will explain why they are connected.

(ii) The ordination of women (iii) Remarriage of divorced persons (iv) the roles of men and women in marriage. Notice that all four issues involve either sexuality or gender or both.

Among the connections are these: the ordination of women is charged by both conservatives and progressives with going against the grain of Scripture, and both are keen on consistency, the former concerned that we should not go against the grain of Scripture on either (i) or (ii), the latter keen to make progress on both (i) and (ii). Then, if consistency matters, there is a realization that the remarriage of divorced persons within the life of the church (once rare, now common) also goes against the grain of Scripture. Next, questions about whether women may lead men (because ordained to the priesthood or episcopacy) cannot be answered without considering the roles of men and women in marriage. In turn, this discussion reminds us of the huge changes 'modern' and 'post-modern' life have brought to the Western world (but not only to the Western world), which tends to bring us to recognition of a huge sexual revolution which has taken place in the last forty years, offering social acceptance of virtually any sexual relationship one can imagine, providing 'no one gets hurt', and thus the church has felt obligated to ask - for both missional and ethical reasons - just what its views are on this that and the other aspect of the sexual revolution, in which homosexuality has figured prominently.

Another way of thinking about the connections is from a quite different starting point. If we accept that God ordered creation in such a manner that the good order of society depends on healthy marriage and family life, with healthy marriage itself being ordered so that the husband and father is head of the wife and mother, then it is logical that the church, as the family of God, and as the bride of Christ, reflects and expresses this order. Consequently, (i) - (iv) above are resolved: women may not be ordained, marriages should not end in divorce, roles for men and women in marriage are already set down, and homosexuality represented in sexual relationships outside of marriage is prohibited. At first sight, this approach implies that there are no hermeneutical issues around the human dignity of men and women, of gays and lesbians, and of divorced persons, because the Bible is completely clear on these matters. But second sight tells us that life is more complex and the Bible turns out to be less than completely clear. A key issue at this point is the high number of divorced persons in the life of the church in the late modern and early post-modern eras: the churches of the West have simply not coped with this issue in the sense of preserving a high quotient of unbroken marriages and resisting the remarriage of divorcees. (It is an illusion that the Roman Catholic church, by focusing on 'annulment' as the means of reckoning with the break down of marriage, has avoided the general problem of marriage and divorce in the West).

Enough for now. More later.

Postscript: since writing the above, John Richardson has published this relevant post, entitled 'The God sex guide'.

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