This is another opportunity for you to join the conversation that will become an important new book – “Who Owns Marriage?” – produced by Nick Park and Evangelical Alliance Ireland! Each morning, for 8 days, segments of the book will be posted here on the Evangelical Seanchai blog. Feel free to add your comments and observations (preferably short and pithy, rather than essays).
A small number of the best contributions (by that we mean the most thought-provoking, not necessarily those that agree with the premises of the book) will be published as part of the conversation section of the finished book. Obviously comments that are hateful to anyone, libellous, or trollish will be deleted. Anonymous comments, or those made under a pen-name, cannot be included in the book.
Yesterday we looked at different attitudes to homosexuality among Evangelicals. Today, Nick shares his own personal stance. Then we look at the influence of Postmodernism. Although EAI has issued a statement on the Same-Sex Marriage Referendum (available at http://www.evangelical.ie) Nick explains why EAI has chosen to engage in a Conversation rather than just issuing a Position Paper.
Feel free to join the Conversation!
Nailing My Personal Colours to the Mast
Of the five attitudes towards homosexuality found among Evangelicals that we listed yesterday, I would fall most easily into number three. As an Evangelical, the Bible is more to me than just a set of theological statements about God. Nor do I see my life as being separated into two separate compartments of ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ where religious beliefs have no influence on my worldview, core values or decisions in life. My understanding of biblical teaching is that sexual intimacy is a blessing and a gift from God that should be enjoyed within the mutual love, commitment and security of a marriage relationship, and that sexual relationships between people of the same gender are not God’s intended purpose for that gift.
However, I see no justification for forcing my opinions upon those who do not share my faith and beliefs. I belong to a Pentecostal Evangelical Church, not to the Taliban. Nor do I consider homosexual behaviour to be particularly detrimental to society – no more so than a host of other common activities that are practiced by the wider population outside of the walls of the Evangelical churches. I do think that New Testament Christian values are beneficial for a culture as a whole, and that Irish society would be better if more people freely chose to share my beliefs and values, but I also strongly hold that any attempt to enforce those values by law would be nightmarish.
I also have many Evangelical friends who would fall into category number two. I understand why they feel as they do, and we are able to discuss our differences of opinion in a way that is good-natured and without rancour. Contrary to the way we are occasionally portrayed in the media, the issue of homosexuality is not high on the agendas of most Evangelicals, and in general we find that much more of our outlook on life unites us than the few issues where we might differ.
I have more difficulty with categories one and four, in that I see aspects of their approaches as being fundamentally at odds with what it means to be an Evangelical Christian. I will expand on those inconsistencies later in this book. This is not to say that I disown them, or feel a need to ‘cast them out’ of the Evangelical camp (as if we were organised or structured enough in the first place to cast anybody out). I still view them as fellow Evangelicals, but I feel the inconsistencies are important enough for us to address them and, where necessary, to point out why they are damaging to our witness to Jesus Christ.
The Influence of Postmodernism
Of the five categories of attitudes concerning Evangelicalism and homosexuality that I listed yesterday, the one that causes me most concern is that which basically divorces our sexual behaviour altogether from our religious beliefs.
This may be viewed as largely embracing a postmodernist approach. To quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.
Confused? Let’s try a different approach.
I find one of the easiest ways to explain postmodernism to those of us who are not professional philosophers is to think about eating a meal (an activity that is always close to my heart). When it comes to food, I am one of those old-fashioned people who find my gastronomical enjoyment is increased when certain things go together. For example, I want to eat my appetiser first, then the main course, and finally a dessert. I would not enjoy a meal where the sticky toffee pudding was served first, long before I got to the mushroom soup or to the steak. Similarly, grating some parmesan cheese over my spaghetti carbonara will enhance my enjoyment of the dish, but the same would not be true if you grated parmesan over my ice cream profiteroles!
In other words, certain things are consistent with, or complement, other things. It might well be true, as they say in Belfast, that all the food ends up in the same place – but the process of getting the food to that place is more satisfying when we eat it in a particular order and a particular way.
A postmodernist approach to food, however, would see nothing wrong with pouring chicken gravy over an ice cream sundae, or adding raspberry yoghurt to a steak and kidney pie. Recently, while visiting the Unites States, my wife and I were on a long drive on Interstate 75 and stopped somewhere in Georgia for lunch at an ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffet restaurant. As we stood in line, a young man in front of us appeared to be trying to pile as many different food groups onto one plate as possible. His salad was squeezed on alongside meat loaf, spaghetti, potatoes, chilli, Chinese fried rice and scrambled egg. It was when he decided to add banana pudding to the mix that I leaned over to Janice and whispered in her ear, “Now that’s what I’m talking about when you hear me going on about postmodernism!”
Now let’s translate this to the relationship between religious belief and sexual morality. One of the cornerstones of Evangelical belief is our relationship to the Bible. It’s not just that we believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but also that it is authoritative for our faith and practice. A postmodernist approach might say that the Bible is the Word of God, and simultaneously adopt a sexual morality that is diametrically opposed to anything we find in the New Testament. But, given that such an approach involves jettisoning the concept of biblical authority, I do not see any way that it can honestly be reconciled with being an Evangelical – the two things are inconsistent and don’t go with each other!
Another Evangelical might interpret the Bible differently to me and so reach different conclusions as to what constitutes acceptable sexual behaviour among Christians. I might disagree strongly with them, but we have a common basis by which we can discuss our differences.
But if someone simply feels free to totally ignore what the Bible has to say about sexual behaviour, then it is difficult to see how they can reasonably be described as Evangelical. They might attend an Evangelical church, they might even refer to themselves as an ‘Evangelical Christian,’ but by divorcing one of the most basic areas of their lives from any biblical reference point they have, in effect, removed themselves from Evangelicalism.
An Evangelical Conversation on Same-Sex Marriage
It would be fair, I believe, to say that the majority of Evangelical Christians in Ireland would be opposed to same-sex marriage in either a religious or a civil context, some extremely strongly so. This view would, incidentally, be even more pronounced among immigrants and ‘the New Irish’ than among those born here. Yet there is a significant minority within some of our churches that would take a different approach.
Some, particularly among the younger end of our constituency, don’t see what all the fuss is about. On occasion, it is not down to any reinterpretation of Scripture so much as a general feeling. They may not have thought through the issue to any depth, and are happy to go with the flow of contemporary opinion in wider society. However, it would be unfair to imply that such a lack of critical thinking is confined to those on one side of the issue. There are plenty of Christians opposed to same-sex marriage whose pronouncements on the subject also indicate a disturbing lack of understanding of how Evangelicals understand and apply the Bible. One of my hopes is that a conversation among Evangelicals on this subject, while it might not produce a uniform approach, will at least help us to think carefully and critically about the issues involved. This will help us all to address other issues that will arise at the interface of religious belief and secular culture.
There are those in the Evangelical community who have been influenced by the views of Vines, Gushee and others. This small, but growing, minority would interpret Scripture in such a way as to see faithful and loving same-sex relationships as consistent with Evangelical faith and that such relationships should be recognised and blessed as marriage by our churches. Part of our conversation should examine the validity of this approach, and ask whether such interpretations truly acknowledge the authority of Scripture.
Then there are still others who would draw a clear distinction between marriage as a Christian ceremony conducted in churches, and marriage as a civil institution. These people would reject any endorsement of same-sex unions within churches, but would see what goes on in a Registrar’s office as being something entirely separate from the biblical concept of marriage. It is entirely possible, therefore, that someone might strongly oppose same-sex marriage in their church, but still vote in favour of permitting same-sex civil marriages under the law of the land.
Like anyone else, I have my own personal views on this issue, and it is inevitable that, in interviews and other media interaction, I will be pressed to state those views. I am also aware that, as Executive Director of EAI with particular responsibility for articulating an evangelical ‘voice,’ there is a danger that my personal views may be misunderstood as necessarily representing the views of EAI, or indeed of Irish Evangelical Christians in general.
Therefore I wish to state in no uncertain terms that I do not envisage EAI as ever acting as an ‘Evangelical Papacy’ or as claiming to represent the views of all Evangelical Christians in Ireland on a given subject. Let’s not forget that Evangelical Christianity rose as a protest against a religious system that required its adherents to conform to a rigidly enforced dogma. The whole point of being an Evangelical is that you have the freedom, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to read the Bible for yourself and come to your own conclusions!
Therefore, as an Evangelical leader, my job must always be to acknowledge the diversity of opinion that exists among us. I can certainly express my own position, and try to give good and reasoned explanations as to how I have reached that position, but I am also required to acknowledge, respect and engage in dialogue with those who disagree with me.
It necessarily follows, therefore, that it is not the job of EAI, or my job, to issue an authoritative and binding position paper on same-sex marriage or any other contentious subject at the interface of Church and culture. Certainly we can offer advice. What we are mandated to do is to stress the values and distinctives that are part of our movement, even when they might seem to be in tension with each other, and then to encourage discussion as to how we best work them out in practice.
So I would rather see this book as a conversation – designed to encourage reasoned debate and a free expression of differing opinions. The responses in that conversation come from a wide range of backgrounds, including Evangelical Christians, non-Evangelical Christians, and those who claim no Christian faith whatsoever. This means, if you care at all about the subjects under discussion, that at some point you will find yourself strongly disagreeing with something that I, or one of the respondents and contributors, have written.
It’s OK to disagree. At times we all need reminding that we can disagree, even over deeply held convictions, while remaining civil and respectful to one another. If this book helps us to do that more, even if it achieves nothing else, then it will have been worth the effort.
Disagreement Better than Dogmatism
The disagreements and differences engendered by a conversation are not necessarily a bad thing, providing that we can learn to disagree in a Christ-like manner. Last year I was talking with another Evangelical leader who passionately argued that we should never admit to disagreements in public. He insisted that unless we spoke with one voice on every subject then all we would do is create confusion. I had to respectfully disagree with him. Ireland has suffered enough over the years at the hands of religious people who held rigidly to dogma and tolerated no dissent.
Sometimes, as Christians, we tend to gloss over or ignore our disagreements. In our eagerness to be good witnesses to our faith we prefer to concentrate on that which unites us. While understandable, this may at times be a mistake. One of the things that those outside our faith tend to find most unattractive about Christians is our smug assumption that we have all the right answers. Many Irish people have had their fill of religious dogmatism. Could it be that our voice can be more, not less, convincing when we come from a place of humility and brokenness? When we admit that we are struggling to work out how best to apply our core principles and values in a fractured and fallen world?
Just over a year ago, I sat at a table for discussions with several key figures from the Evangelical movement in Ireland. Before ‘getting down to business’ we talked openly and honestly about the stuff that was going on in our own lives. Then we prayed for one another. I was struck by the fact that, of eight or nine people in the room that day, four of us had dealt with the impact of immediate family members who had ‘come out’ as being gay. In some cases, because of a clash of parental and personal expectations and church beliefs, this had been traumatic for all concerned. I realised that, when it came to discussing the issue of same-sex marriage, we were not approaching it as ivory tower theologians who had it all worked out nicely. Instead we were people who were trying our best to be good parents and spouses, and that we had made plenty of mistakes on the way.
Historically, some of the Christian Church’s greatest insights have come from those who know what it means to sit in a place of humility and brokenness.