Monday, January 2, 2012

Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality (5)

These are my final ‘review’ reflections on this book. I may come back to it another day, but I have promised to pass the book onto a friend. I am not pretending that these five posts add up to a comprehensive, thorough review. 

I suggest the context for my reflections is this: in the 21st century Christians are engaging with the question whether God might, despite some indications to the contrary in Holy Scripture, be favourably disposed towards same sex partnerships which exhibit qualities cherished in marriage: faithfulness, permanency, stability and, above all, unconditional and abiding love. A very sharp engagement is taking place in the Anglican Communion and in member churches of the Communion. The author, Tobias Haller, is a person (so it seems to me) of influence in his Anglican church (TEC), and I am someone reasonably well known in my Anglican church (ACANZP) for engaging with the question described above. So he writes and I review in the midst of the general engagement with the question as well as in the midst of a particularly sharp Anglican debate.

The context then is not an abstract piece of research because this just happens to be the academic area of shared interest for us: rather the context is one in which attempts are being made to persuade people to come to one commitment or another about the answer to the question, in the hope that a way forward can be found for the Communion to remain a union of churches, and for individual churches to be of a common mind.

For some of our brothers and sisters the question is a ‘no brainer’: it doesn’t even need discussing, it is so obvious that same sex partnerships are right / wrong. It is scarcely credible that Haller has written for this group: he has spent a lot of time and energy on a detailed and complicated argument.

For others the answer to the question is not so obvious, meaning that for some they would like to be made more sure of their decision that such partnerships are right, and for others they are open to being convinced that such partnerships are right but currently think they are wrong. I take it that Haller is writing for such people. In turn, that means that in part a response to the book can properly be concerned with the reviewer’s assessment of the power of the main argument and lesser arguments to convince the reader. Given that I have read a number of adulatory comments from some readers whom I judge to be disposed to agree with Haller’s conclusions, I am in no doubt that readers wanting to be made ‘more sure’ in their convictions are well convinced by the book.

But for myself (as someone ‘open’ to being convinced otherwise than my convictions currently stand) I am left unconvinced by some of Haller’s arguments but more importantly left wondering whether this book will convince any ‘open’ conservative to change their mind. For example, as implied in posts below, I think it wrong-headed to argue the rightness of same sex partnerships by drawing so many negative outcomes to questions posed about a biblical understanding of marriage.

Not mentioned in posts below, but relevant to this concern about a wrong-headed approach re marriage is this reflection: when Haller argues about ‘complementary’, ‘differences’, ‘similarities’ and does so in such a manner as to minimise differences between men and women, he misses a rather large point about the reality of marriage between a man and a woman: the significant bits of marriage are precisely about the differences between a man and a woman. Very few heterosexual marriages work well and present well without immense effort, often hidden from sight of others, to face, learn from and overcome the difficulties which differences between husband and wife cause. The similarities between husband and wife are the straightforward aspects of wonderful married life. The differences, especially the gender differences are where marriages grow (or fail). In short: Haller would be (I suggest) more convincing in some things he says about marriage if he conveyed a more accurate description of how marriage works between a man and a woman, a description which might show more appreciation of the role gender difference plays in the achievement of a successful marriage.

Additionally, though this is less of an issue, I also suggest Haller would also be more convincing if he did not downplay the role of procreation for marriage (e.g. the phrase '... in some cases, to procreate ...', p. 22). Some marriages are infertile - an undeniable fact. But most marriages have procreation at their centre, whether driving the years of paying off a mortgage on the house which will be the home to children, filling the years in which children come, grow, and even in maturity require nurture and support, or driving months and years of striving to conceive by one means or another. If I am to speak more frankly, I find Reasonable and Holy to be quite off-hand about procreation and its importance to nearly all marriages. That could be just me. But if not, then I suggest such off-handedness is unlikely to win the readers to Haller's cause whom he seeks to persuade.

Then, thinking about convincing readers, I also wonder how many readers will be convinced that Jesus (on the one hand) said nothing about same sexuality and (on the other hand) if asked would have said something which went against Leviticus 18:22 (or any other part of Leviticus 18). I have explored this in the previous two posts, and Haller has responded in a long comment to post (4). I remain unconvinced. But more importantly: are readers going to be convinced or unconvinced? Readers, that is, whose starting point is that Jesus by no means has been neutral about homosexuality.

There are then three other observations I wish to make in this final post about ways in which this book fails to convince me. Again, I am trying to raise matters which I think are worth noting because I wonder if they are also ways in which others will fail to be convinced:

- What is Haller’s main argument in this book towards justifying same sex partnerships? At times the main argument seems to be about what Scripture does and does not say about same sexuality, and towards this argument is brought a great deal of detailed commentary, not a small amount of speculation (e.g. p. 139), and a preference for what Rabbinical Judaism had to say about the meaning of biblical texts. At other times the argument seems to be that if we only distil from Scripture the imperatives of love (the Golden Rule, the centrality of Love your neighbour as yourself, showing mercy, finding within people the intent of their heart), then all is well for all loving, faithful, permanent relationships. As adduced in posts below, I find Haller unconvincing on many aspects of the detailed argument (and, prompted by noting some other reviewers’ comments, bemused by the preference for what Rabbinic Judaism had to say when so many Christians fathers had things to say ... but in any case both groups were speaking a long time after the last New Testament document was written); and the imperatives of love approach offers nothing new which has not already been said before.

- Haller has a (to me) surprising view of the authority of the church in relation to sin: ‘The church has the authority to declare whether a given act or relationship is sinful or not’ (p. 174). Yes, the church at different times and places has declared this and that, and it may have acted as though it had the authority to declare a given act or relationship to be sinful or not. But, in the end, the determination of what is sin is God’s business and those determinations are declared to us in ‘God’s Word written’ (which Haller, on the same page, acknowledges the church must not ordain anything which is contrary to that written Word). On those matters where the church has expressed a view contrary to (or, arguably, contrary to) God’s Word written (for example, usury, which Haller rightly mentions on that page), then the matter is far from authoritatively settled. The church in its councils can ‘err’ and time is not yet finished on the question of whether the church is in error or not on usury.

- The book as a whole has an approach to Holy Scripture which begs a question or two. In particular it begs the question whether Holy Scripture is God’s Word written or the writings of God’s people. Again and again the approach taken is that Scripture is a document we scrap over more than a document we come before in order to obey its commandments and to receive its instructions. ‘Scrap over’ is my term, Haller would put it quite differently, and talk about the engagement of reason with the material in Scripture. Again, I suggest that the people Haller might be most interested in winning over to his conclusions include those whose general understanding of Scripture is different to his, but to that different understanding little accommodation is made.

Nevertheless I have appreciated and wonder if other readers might join me in that appreciation of the simple point that Haller makes in Chapter 7. I cite what I wrote in my second post on the book:

“I think Haller's best point and strongest argument in favour of same sex relationships being accepted in the church is made in chapter 7. Working from St. Paul's 'better to marry than burn' (1 Corinthians 7:9), that is 'Marriage, for Paul, was among other things a remedy for desire' Haller asks the question, 'So can we in our present day make a similar allowance for same-sex relationships?' (p. 59). He further says, p. 61, 'A more tolerant view within church or state does not necessitate the recognition of same-sex relationships as either marriage or matrimony, that is, as either civil or sacred in exactly the same was and to the same extent as mixed-sex marriage. But some form of recognized permanent commitment can be seen to be appropriate as an application of Paul's teaching that "it is better to marry than to burn" to a situation which Paul himself may well have found inconceivable.'

Here is, indeed, a reasonable point (sexual desire in most people is too strong to contain), a responsible question (what is the remedy for homosexual desire when celibacy is not a gift given to all?), and a moderate request (can some form of recognized permanent commitment be offered by the church?).”
Is this the 'last word' on the subject (at least in Anglican circles)? No.

Is this an important 'must engage with' word on the matter? Yes!


  1. Hello Peter,

    Just wanted to point you to this article in case you haven't read it. It's one of the best I've read on scientific studies into the subject.

  2. Hi Janice
    Thanks for drawing attention to this excellent article!