[Note: This post was written with very spotty – and much slower than advertised – cruise ship internet, so please excuse errors and the lack of usual visual elements…. I get it, I am definitely not complaining, but it did take 10 minutes just to get the cursor to start typing!]
This week our class read God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction by Adrian Thatcher which is nothing short of essential reading for anyone that wants to think seriously and theologically about, well, God, sex and gender and how those things intersect. This is due partially to the breadth of material Thatcher covers, but it is at least equally due to the excellent layout of the material Thatcher introduces.
This may seem like a minor point, but I really believe that it is anything but. This is, obviously, a hotly contested area of study and discussion not just in the church, but in our broader culture and society as well. The issue of sexuality, God and theology is one that I have studied extensively in a variety of settings from seminary, to youth groups and church bible studies to much less formal conversations between friends inside and outside of the church.
Much of the material I have read in this area is devoid of theological depth, clearly writing with a predetermined conclusion in mind or just difficult to digest due to poor or overly dense writing. Thatcher’s construction, with short easily digestible tidbits followed up with ‘activities’ that usually take the form of a question and a comment that follows made the material more accessible and significantly easier to engage with.
Having said all of that, I feel like I could have gone in a variety of different ways for this post. But one section, one of Thatcher’s ‘comments’ stood out particularly to me, under the heading 3.3 Using Sources Well
The basic problem is that the churches place considerable faith in the power of these sources to control their teaching about sex. But it isn’t clear that these sources do control their teaching. For example, Protestant churches appear to have little trouble with divorce and further marriage. How do they square that with Scripture and Tradition?
Or again, it is important that any development in the churches’ teaching about anything should be shown to be consistent with Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. But, notoriously, groups of Christians have been adept at proclaiming heresy and hatred when they have advocated doctrines and ethical teachings, believing them to be fully consistent with Scripture and Tradition. (Thatcher, 49-50)
Thatcher’s point here is one that reminds me of something my mother once told me as I was trying to work through the a severe disappointment from someone that I loved: When someone you love consistently fails to meet your expectations you have only two choices: you can change your love or change your expectations. For me this gets right to the question of ‘experience’ that Thatcher raises – whether or not to consider personal experience in this discussion (Thatcher says, yes) – and my own personal experiences with this issue.
The first thing I will note, from my experience, is in terms of those people whom I know personally that have changed their view on any issues around sex and theology (especially around LGBTQ issues and/or questions) it has been almost exclusively as the direct result of experience. To be clear, I am not saying experience alone – but for many that have changed views on this topic, their personal experiences began to challenge their previous views and to illumine, shape and inform their current ones.
Thatcher’s point here about divorce is an obvious and critical one – this is not some new phenomenon. Not only is this something that has been going on throughout all of history, it is something most – if not all – of us do. And, while there are ‘dangers’, I don’t think one can have a fully realized theology that isn’t informed and tested by one’s own experience.
Whenever someone comes to me with an issue or complaint about something – or especially – someone in the church, one of the things I will often say is something to the effect of: the problem with the church is that it is made out of people. My point is that none of us is perfect, so if we expect perfection from something with human hands on it, we are going to be disappointed.
We all know that we are far from perfect, but we also know that when those faults are found in someone we love, we often find a way to endure them, justify them and sometimes even to sanctify them. It does beg the question of who we choose to demonstrate love to and why – which I believe will be the vital question for churches, and questions, on both ‘sides’ of the theological dived over sex. How do we demonstrate God’s love?
I am still wondering where our understanding of tradition and Scripture (and reason), shaped by experience will lead us?
To be honest I am not sure where we are headed, and I am sure that I have no idea how we will get ‘there’, wherever ‘there’ is. What I am sure of is that each of us is shaped by our experiences – and our theologies are shaped by those experiences as well.