Talk 2: What is behind the living in love and faith project?

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One factor undoubtedly behind the L.L.F project, surely, is a wrong reading of scripture, with an overvaluing of reason and absence of a theology of “tradition”. As we said in our invitations to this 2021 Jesmond Conference:

“we meet assuming the Anglican conviction (see Canon A5) that, as the Bishops said in Issues in Human Sexuality:

‘There is in Scripture an evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for the proper development of men and women as sexual beings. Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable’ (2.29)”

And confirmed by reason and tradition that Scriptural teaching provides the Anglican ethic and the historic ethic for all believers for all time in respect of marriage, sex and sexuality.

To act against that ethic causes suffering somewhere directly or indirectly and so is not only sinful but very foolish.

Take the sad case of an ex-Baptist minister (as related in the third person on his website). Married in 1971 and with three children, he became the pastor in a university city Church in 1979. But he resigned in 1999 after one homosexual relationship of a year with a post-graduate student and a second secret homosexual friendship with an economist student (who then left him to cohabit with another man).And he resigned after five years (I quote):

… reflecting deeply on what the Bible had to say about homosexuality.

We are told that (I quote):

…by the early 90s, he was convinced that most Christians had seriously misunderstood the mind of God on the subject and he was becoming increasingly concerned about the damage which was being done to gay men and women by homophobic prejudice.

All that led to his 1999 messy resignation from his Church, leaving a wife of 28 years, resulting in a divorce in 2001, and then renewing a relationship with his economist former lover, which became a civil partnership in 2015.

But how did this ex-Baptist pastor become convinced that he himself had not seriously misunderstood the mind of God regarding all of this? An answer was given in 2014 when he gave two talks at a conference one of which was entitled, Why I am still an evangelical Christian. In this talk he said that he believed there were three distinctives that defined Evangelicalism:

one, Evangelicals have a high view of the authority of the Bible; two, Evangelicals seek to interpret the Bible in a responsible and scholarly fashion; and, three, Evangelicals respect personal conscience in regard to controversial views.

Most of what he said on the authority of the Bible was very good. Then came this qualifier:

it must also be said that a high view of Scripture on its own is not enough. Jehovah’s witnesses have a high view of scripture, too, don’t they? So do any number of other bizarre sects…It is pointless to say you believe the Bible is the Word of God unless you go on to explain the principles that control your interpretation of the Bible.

And so when discussing his second point which was:

Evangelicals seek to interpret the Bible in a responsible and scholarly fashion,

he went on to say:

once we raise the issue of biblical interpretation…we inevitably encounter a thorny theological debate about the tension between human reason and the Bible. Should I base my opinions solely on Scripture or should I also give weight to the rational conclusion of human logic and modern science? Evangelicals distinguish themselves from liberal Christians on the one hand and fundamentalist Christians on the other by their response to this long-standing controversy.

That exposes his problem. For Scripture interpreted simply by human reason weighing:

…the rational conclusion of human logic and modern science

is quite inadequate because insufficient. For we individually, on our own, are not able, without the help of other Christians, to make judgments on many doctrines and ethics. And it is no good even then relying on just your contemporaries. You need to know also what Christians have said down the ages. For Paul says it is through the Father’s Holy…

…Spirit in your inner being…you…comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth (Ephesians 3.16-18).

And that is why we also need “tradition” as well as human reason. As Jaroslav Pelikan famously said:

tradition is the living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

However, without tradition as a check, the Baptist Pastor then said in his talk:

the psychological evidence unambiguously indicates that sexual orientation is fixed at a very early age and is immutable” and “the Bible has no idea of homosexual orientation.

So he concluded:

an Evangelical’s confidence in the authority of Scripture never leads to a mindless recital of fundamentalist proof-texts, they seek rather a carefully nuanced and academically informed exposition of the Bible that does full justice to its historical and cultural background etc.

That is true. But a “carefully nuanced and academically informed” expositor would have known the Christian tradition and that the Anglican General Synod’s Board for Social Responsibilty pointed out in 1979 the following: namely that Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd century AD when commenting on Matthew 19.12 and “eunuchs from birth”, reported that there was a current interpretation that it referred to:

some men from their birth [who] have a natural sense of repulsion from a woman.

And such an academically informed expositor would have added that the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the 4th century BC knew of distinctions in homosexuals, and that some were “homosexual by nature”. So Paul, when in Athens and evidencing his knowledge of the Greek poets, Epimenides, Cleanthes and Aratus (see Acts 17) most likely knew Aristotle’s teaching on sexual matters. The loss of the Christian “tradition”, of course, judged in the light of Scripture must contribute to the misreading of Scripture and, certainly, such misreading as is behind the L.L.F. project.

So we should not be embarrassed by the metaphor of the Anglican three legged stool of Scripture, Reason and Tradition, but with Scripture (because Apostolic) being the final authority. As Biblical Christians, which all true Anglicans are, we need to remind ourselves of the doctrinal position of the Church of England at law. For it is simple. Because of the Church of England Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974 (which has the same status as an Act of Parliament) doctrine has to be defined by the Church of England’s Canon A5 which says:

the doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teaching of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal.

So the common sense reading of the Bible (which John Wycliffe once said is “incorrigible” – it cannot be corrected) and read in the light of the tradition – the teachings down the ages as are agreeable to the said Scriptures and the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles – that reading says the Bishops summary of the biblical teaching on sex and sexuality, is absolutely correct and therefore the doctrine of the Church of England, namely, as we have already said, that there is in Scripture truly:

…an evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong monogamous, heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for the proper development of men and women as sexual beings. Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable. (Issues in Human Sexuality, 2.29).

But why this focus on sex, in the first place? Well that brings us to the second major factor that is behind the L.L.F. project. It is simply that since Freud, who died in 1939, there has been an evolving philosophy which, on analysis, can be said to be more like a religion than a philosophy and at it’s heart is sex. Let me explain by citing Robert George who is a distinguished Professor of Law at Princeton University and writes about this evolution as follows:

It was the distinctive claim of late twentieth century secular liberal political philosophy that sound principles of justice require that law and government be neutral as between controversial conceptions of the human good [or the common good].

Critics, [including me, I’m quoting George] argued that the ‘neutrality’ to which the orthodox secularist liberalism of the period aspired (or at least purported to aspire) was neither desirable nor possible. That political philosophy was, we argued, built on premises into which had been smuggled controversial substantive ideas – liberal secularist ideas – about human nature, the human good, human dignity, and, indeed, human destiny. These ideas are as substantive and controversial as those proposed by Catholicism [George writes as a Roman Catholic], Judaism, and other so-called comprehensive doctrines, be they secular or religious.

But then he goes on to describe what is going on now in America – and more subtly, in the UK and Europe:

Today, little effort is made by secular liberals (or ‘progressives’ as many prefer to be labelled) to maintain the pretence of neutrality. Having gained the advantage, and in many cases having prevailed (at least for now), on battle front after battle front in the modern culture war, and having achieved hegemony in elite sectors of the culture (for example, in education at every level, in the news and entertainment media, in the professions, in corporate America, and even in much religion – including making inroads into the Catholic Church [and we can add in the Church of England – witness LLF], there is no longer any need to pretend.

So says Professor George. Is he not right? Certainly, the legislating to allow marriage to include same-sex couples was a defining moment. And it was far from neutral. It was enshrining in law the preference for a morality and ideas about the human good very different to the biblical and Christian or, indeed, the natural law understandings of marriage. This secular view was preferred precisely because it was thought better than the ideas in the Bible and the Christian tradition.

But what really is at the heart of this new secular liberalism or “progressivism”? Certainly not any true “liberalism”. Gladstone, a Christian politician from whom we can still learn about Church and State relationships, would be horrified to be associated with any of these new ideas. Steven Smith, another Professor of Law (from San Diego), goes further than to be horrified. He says that these ideas actually form a religion. And he calls this new religion, “paganism”. He explains why, in his new book, Pagans & Christians in the City. And he and others are using the term “pagan” carefully, not because people today believe in Jupiter and Venus and other gods from the ancient Roman pantheon. No! But it is because contemporary secular liberalism or “progressivism” shares ideas and beliefs common with people in pre-Christian Rome. Steven Smith makes the fundamental point that as in pre-Christian Rome, today’s secular liberals do not believe in a God who is transcendent. And so he explains his use of “Pagan” as follows:

Pagan religion locates the sacred within this world. In that way, paganism can consecrate the world from within. It is religiosity relative to an immanent sacred. Judaism and Christianity, by contrast reflect transcendent religiosity: they place the sacred ultimately, outside the world.

And such pantheistic Paganism is respectable in today’s world. Consider, for one, Anthony Kronman. Some will remember him from a previous Jesmond Conference when I referred to his important book Education’s End sub-titled why our colleges and universities have given up on the meaning of life. Not a Christian, he was then known as a secular humanist. He was, and is, a Professor of Law at Yale University who decided to teach also in a humanities programme. Well, Kronman has subsequent to Education’s End come out with a 1076 page new book entitled Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan. I only acquired it at the end of February; so have yet to read it – I’ve only dipped into it. However, the book’s description is as follows:

In this passionate and searching book, Anthony Kronman offers a third-way -beyond atheism and religion – to the God of the modern world.

We live in an age of disenchantment. The number of self-professed ‘atheists’ continues to grow. Yet many still feel an intense spiritual longing for a connection to what Aristotle called the ‘eternal and divine’. For those who do, but demand a God that is compatible with their modern ideals, a new theology is required. This is what Anthony Kronman offers here, in a book that leads his readers away from the inscrutable Creator of the Abrahamic religions toward a God whose inexhaustible and everlasting presence is that of the world itself. Kronman defends an ancient conception of God, deepened and transformed by Christian belief – the born-again paganism on which modern science, art, and politics all vitally depend. Brilliantly surveying centuries of Western thought – from Plato to Augustine, Aquinas and Kant, from Spinoza to Nietzche, Darwin and Freud – Kronman recovers and reclaims the God we need today.

That is pure pantheism as Steven Smith makes clear, and a god altogether other than the God for whom Isaiah spoke (Isaiah 57.15):

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, to revive the heart of the contrite.’

God is transcendent. He is our Creator. Hence he knows what is for human flourishing and human good. But, of course, the good news, is, as Isaiah says, he also immanent. And we know, supremely, he is immanent in the person of Jesus Christ who came and still comes by his Holy Spirit to the “contrite”. However, we are now to think of Christ as the transcendent one. Paul writes in Philippians 2.9-11 that:

God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.

But God’s transcendence means that in this world:

we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13.14).

Smith says that is so different to the pagan. I quote:

The pagan orientation…accepts this world as our home, and does so joyously, exuberantly, and worshipfully.

But because of the great commission of Jesus (Matthew 28.18-20) Christian believers have to immerse themselves in this world for God’s will be done on earth (imminently) as in heaven (transcendently). They not only have to baptize as they make disciples, but be teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28.20). And that meant in New Testament times challenging Roman ideas and practices. And a central area of challenge was sex. As Kyle Harper, the classical historian, writes in his book, From Shame to Sin: the Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity:

[sexual morality] came to mark the great divide between Christians and the world.

Until gradually the Church transformed the sexual norm, the rejection of fornication, adultery, homosexual sex, and pornographic shows, were “almost unfathomable” to the Romans as, sadly, they are today with many in the West. The Christians were seen as wanting to turn the lights off.

So in our next session we will think about how we operate with those in the Church who want to turn the lights on again, by teaching like our ex Baptist minister teaches, or, by wanting to criminalize those teaching that the above mentioned sins call for Christian repentance, not “joyous, exuberant, and worshipful” pantheistic acceptance.

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