Method in our Madness (2/6)

methodinmadness 2

“Method in our Madness” is a six-week series on the United Methodist Church and human sexuality.
JUMP TO A SESSION: 1 | 2 | 3

A Little Recap

We wrapped last week on one of the biggest core questions for human sexuality: is being gay a sin? And, right off the bat, we decided to reframe that question more clearly, by including the three tiers of sexuality that are common to everyone. Thus, we asked, “Is having sexual attraction sinful? …is having a sexual orientation sinful? …is having sexual identity sinful?

Our response together was: not exactly. Not exactly, because it depends on what we do with our attractions and orientation. It depends on how we choose to live into identity. So, our over-arching conclusion was that Christians are called to discernment. We’re called to discern:

  1. Between the different parts of us, and the persons that we truly are in God’s sight.
  2. Between persons, and practice.

These are ideas that I believe are already reflected in the current UMC stance on human sexuality, which states that “all persons are of sacred worth, but the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Last week, I previewed that we’re going to spend the next few sessions taking a look at sexuality through the “Wesleyan quadrilateral.” The quadrilateral is a tool for examining ideas from four critical angles — Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. For Methodists, these four lenses aren’t on equal footing. They’re more like a three-legged stool, with Scripture on top being supported by the others. And we’re going to move through the quadrilateral somewhat “backwards” by starting with Experience.

Why? Mostly because I wanted to start this series by describing the backdrop that shapes my own traditional view on sexuality. I wanted to let you know my own experience up front. The problem is, I’ve found that there isn’t time to both share my own experience, and to cover the other material for Session Two. So, here’s the plan: I’ve written a brief personal account separately from this session. You can find it here, and I encourage you to read it, maybe even before going further.

In the meantime, we’ll get into the heart of Session Two. Experience. We’re talking about the way that each of us encounters God personally. As a lens for faith, it comes with some serious strengths as well as particular flaws, so let’s start there.

The Value in Experience

First, I think one of the absolute coolest things in creation is that God endows us with our senses. We get to directly take in the universe around us through sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste – it’s amazing. I also put a lot of stock in intuition, in our gut feelings and sixth senses. I believe in that inner voice, the conscience, personal conviction in my spirit. As Methodists, we teach that people encounter God through these channels; we can meet God and we can feel it somehow. John Wesley, our founder, put huge emphasis on feeling the direct presence of God. He famously described his own sense of God’s assurance as having his “heart strangely warmed.” Experience is powerful.

Second, experience reminds us that God is alive, moving and breathing. Our faith isn’t just words on a page, or carved into stone. God can’t be tied down; words won’t always express who God is to us; God surprises us! Remember, Pentecostalism is a close cousin of Methodism, with an extremely high view of the Holy Spirit’s action and gifts. We believe that God continues to reveal and pour things out upon us, teaching us new things, leading us in sanctification. This sort of transformation is something you just have to experience.

Third, Methodists believe that we no long require a mediator to interact with God. There isn’t limited, exclusive access by a high priest or pastor who then transmits God to us second-hand. In the words of the book of Hebrews, Jesus himself is our mediator. We aren’t called to blindly acquiesce to the doctrines that are served up to us by other people. As the Avett Brothers sing it, “My God and I don’t need no middle man.” Thank God, we each have our own unique experience of God.

The Weak Places

But, despite its importance, experience isn’t an end-all, be-all. First, everybody repeat after me: “My own experience has serious limits.” Sometimes the data that my senses take in is simply inaccurate. Sometimes my feelings are nebulous, fickle, ever-changing. And sometimes I have blind-spots. Remember our reference to Matthew 7 last week? In his teaching on judgment, Jesus uses the example of our overlooking a plank in our own eye while pinpointing a speck in our neighbor’s. As I said then, Jesus isn’t teaching us to throw out our moral standards for fear of being “judgy.” The real takeaway is that we don’t always see clearly, we can’t always trust our own eyes, not even when it comes to ourselves and those nearest us. We naturally have blind-spots that distort proper reality. Some are unintentional – a person with 20/2,000 vision can’t help what they can’t see. Others are more intentional – we all have ideologies that form bias and willful ignorance. So, again, experience has huge limitations.

Second, everybody repeat after me: “My interpretation of my experience has serious limits.” Even if I took in a perfectly accurate picture of the universe around me, it’s still up to me to process that info into anything meaningful. And, sometimes, I’m dead wrong in my conclusions. It’s funny, some of us make a favorite pastime out of debunking the other lenses of faith — especially Scripture and Tradition — because they involve interpretation. We say, “The Bible is just one set of views, from a limited group of people, and your understanding is just one interpretation. The Bible can be used as a puppet to say whatever you want.” That is all absolutely true, in its way. But let’s also be clear: Experience is the single most-interpreted lens at our disposal. At least Scripture and Tradition give us a body of work, placed in our hands through the witness of countless faithful generations, that we can all look at together. It’s a clear and common starting point. Experience, on the other hand, is subjective from beginning to end.

We pray that our experience, and its interpretation, is inspired by the Holy Spirit. But the glaring flaw is that “the Holy Spirit” can also be used as a puppet to say whatever we want. It’s a heresy that is both age-old and in vogue. Probably the most prodigious example in our midst today is Mormonism, with some 15 million adherents on record. In the 1820s, its founder, Joseph Smith, styled his teaching as something like a reclaiming of authentic Christianity. He declared that, through new revelation with angelic visions and magic plates, he was uncovering all sorts of truth that no one else had ever heard. His “prophecies” included glaring historical problems, some woeful theology, and oppressive practice like forced polygamy. But such was his “experience” as a “prophet,” and such did that experience appeal to some who heard it. Later, in 1890, when the Mormon territory of Utah wanted the benefits of being admitted to the Union, only one thing stood in its way with the Federal government: the practice of polygamy. Conveniently, the acting Mormon president/prophet received a sudden new revelation from God – polygamy would no longer be acceptable. Now that’s some timely interpretation! Now, no, I’m not lumping every fan of Christian experience into the vein of Mormonism, but some degree of these same pitfalls lies before every one of us when it comes to continuing revelation.

Third, then, a major weakness in Experience as a lens of faith is when we focus too heavily on individual experience. It’s easy to become enamored with the personal revelation of the Holy Spirit. We sometimes love the idea that the Spirit might say things directly to me and me alone. We’re quick to claim that any “new thing” MUST be a movement of the Spirit. But all of that neglects the significance of the corporate experience of the Body of Christ. The Church has always tried to test its teaching across geography, cultural context, time and more. Christians congregate together, we form councils, we develop a canon of Scripture, we share creeds, and as Methodists we have “holy conferencing,” all in order to discern the Spirit as a wider community. We look for agreement between new ideas and what we’ve always known and loved about God. It’s not to say we don’t still make corporate mistakes, because shared experience is always subject to larger-level blind-spots. But it’s a much, much better start.

Experience & LGBTQ Identity

Overall, personal experience seems to be the dominant lens in American culture. You can hear it in our everyday language, “I feel like… My truth… You do you and I’ll do me.” It’s also a huge factor in society’s shift toward wholesale approval of LGBTQ identity. With increased broad acceptance, people have more and more experience with openly LGBTQ-identified friends/family. Portions of our culture (mainstream media, academia, some faith groups, etc.) have also dramatically elevated our experience with LGBTQ identity for the last 50+ years.

There are serious benefits to this exposure. In previous generations, a lack of open experience was one big source of intolerance, fear, and misunderstanding over homosexuality. Increased experience is key in the gradual lessening of marginalization, criminalization, harm, and violence inflicted on LGBTQ-identified people. That is great, and it’s ongoing. But one drawback is that I think we sometimes cross the line of appropriate exposure, particularly with very young children (see: twerking drag-queen storybook hour). Another drawback, the most significant, is that our culture may be rapidly swinging from extreme to extreme: from rampant public homophobia to ill-conceived blanket approval, without much pause or room in between.

So, what are some of the most influential experiences in this rapid shift? What common interpretations are being drawn by our culture? And how might Christians test or challenge these conclusions in response?

1. The inward experience of LGBTQ-identified people

The Experience: LGBTQ-identified folk are telling us, essentially, “I feel these attractions. I didn’t choose them. It’s like I’ve always had them, and they’re not going to change. God must have made me this way. My LGBTQ identity gives me peace and meaning. I love my partner.”

Common Cultural Interpretation: A person’s sexual attractions are part of their sacred, God-given self. God must create same-sex attraction, and specifically intends for some people to have LGBTQ-identity. They have God’s blessing to act on their attractions. Choosing not to is to live a repressed or incomplete life. For example, a common chorus in our culture that applies directly to LGBTQ identity says, in the words of Lady Gaga:

I’m beautiful in my way,
’cause God makes no mistakes.
I’m on the right track, baby.
I was born this way.

A Christian Response: Especially as Methodists, we don’t believe that everything we observe in Creation, or everything that seems to be born in us, reflects God’s intended good and perfect will. Not every part of what we consider our “self” is sacred or God-given. In fact, our natural state is to be sinful, self-centered, and self-absorbed — and to inflict harm on ourselves, on others, and on Creation (see “original sin”). Our sexual attractions in particular can be totally distorted by our fallen, broken being. A quick Google search will provide all the evidence anyone ever needs that our culture’s sexual moral compass is completely nonexistent.

God also endows us with the will to choose which feelings we act on, and how. So, regardless of attraction/orientation, identity is indeed a choice. For example, one important experience to consider is that many Christians with same-sex attraction discover that celibacy is their only viable option. Practicing their sexuality is a spiritual burden to them, and they have a clear conviction that it is not of God. So, they choose to identify by their faith rather than their orientation.

Last, it needs to be said loud and clear, repeatedly, in every circle: not having sex does not make for a repressed or incomplete life. For Pete’s sake. Sex does not complete any of us. A healthy and holy view of singleness, and celibacy, is severely lacking in our society, starting with the American Church.

2. Apparent value in same-sex relationships

The Experience: Many people see same-sex relationships providing valuable things like companionship, affection, love, sexual expression, mutual support, shared resources, family and home, care in aging, and more.

Common Cultural Interpretation: Human beings are made for intimate relationship. The best and deepest relationships include everything listed above. LGBTQ-identified people should have an opportunity to enjoy these things in a marriage, just as others do in heterosexual marriage.

Besides, as much as an intimate relationship must include sex, sex isn’t that big a deal. Married couples probably spend less than 1% of their time in sexual activity. It’s all of these other benefits that really matter in the long-run. Shouldn’t LGBTQ-identified persons have a same-sex version of that?

A Christian Response: Human beings are definitely made for intimate relationship, for the sake of so many of these benefits. But the best and deepest relationships do not require a sexual component. Non-sexual relationships can accomplish all of these holy things for LGBTQ-identified (and single heterosexual) people, and Christians have a rich history of providing such relationships in close-knit community.

Besides, if sex isn’t that big a deal…if “all of this other companionship” is what really matters…and if we’re ultimately preparing for an eternity where sex is made insignificant in God’s presence — then why does everyone require their own particular, God-ordained brand of sexual expression and marriage?

3. Fruitfulness in LGBTQ-identified clergy

The Experience: LGBTQ-identified persons have a sense of calling and gifting to serve as ministers, and can be just as effective as (or more than) any straight minister.

Common Cultural Interpretation: If God knows that someone is gay, and also calls them to be clergy, then isn’t God tacitly approving of their sexuality? As the saying goes, “only good trees can bear good fruit.” So, if an LGBTQ-identified person bears good fruit in ministry, it must be a sign that their lives (including their sexuality) are good and holy in God’s sight.

Plus, even if God isn’t pleased with an LGBTQ-identified person’s whole lifestyle, there’s no way God is pleased with any straight pastor’s whole lifestyle, either. So let’s be real, if sinful straight people can still be clergy, then self-avowed practicing LGBTQ-identified people should be allowed to be clergy.

A Christian Response: When God calls anyone to ministry, it’s never a declaration that their whole person is right and good. It doesn’t imply that someone has permanently achieved some higher level holiness. As a pastor, and as a preacher’s son, that is one of the most patently foolish ideas I’ve ever heard. When I was a kid I was closely acquainted with my Dad’s imperfections, and Dad has always been pretty clear that he is a real person. It’s part of why he’s been excellent in every context that he’s served. I also had an occasion to see that, no matter how broken and sinful Dad was, God could also bear good fruit in him. I now know how true it is for me, too.

Anytime anyone bears good fruit in ministry, it is by God’s grace alone. It’s not a sign that we’re without fault, it’s despite our human faults. On any given day – even Sunday – a clergyperson’s life choices (including their sexuality) might not be remotely pleasing in God’s sight. What does set clergy apart is that we vow to especially strive for holiness. We aim for a high bar of disciplined life. In the United Methodist church that includes taking vows to uphold clear sexual standards. But we always depend on repentance and on God’s grace in our failures.

4. Negative experience of traditional beliefs

The Experience: A traditional view of marriage/sexuality is regularly perceived as bigoted, hateful, phobic, ignorant, uneducated, unpopular, inflammatory, and more.

Common Cultural Interpretation: In some cases, it’s no longer enough to be merely tolerant or accepting of LGBTQ identity. There’s significant cultural pressure for everyone to move toward unequivocal approval. Any other stance might be derided as demeaning and harmful to people. Traditional views may even be considered discrimination, which could have serious consequences in a person’s public and private life. On the other hand, LGBTQ activism is almost universally viewed as compassionate and rewarded with social credibility.

A Christian Response: There are certainly still many groups, very much including self-identified “Christians,” who greet LGBTQ identity with overt hatred and bigotry. It’s unacceptable, and we must all work against it. At the same time, millions of loving, compassionate, well-thought, intelligent, educated people take a traditional view of marriage. Many, many of them do so without an inkling of ill-will for LGBTQ-identified people, without any fear or prejudice.

Christians “can be accepting without being approving” (Rick Warren). Loving others does not require being in agreement with them. As a matter of fact, true love, Christian love, must run deeper than generic agreement. Too many of my closest peers confess that they’ve shifted their view on sexuality for no reason deeper than, “It feels mean to tell gay people they can’t get married. I don’t want to be mean. I want to be nice. Marriage for everybody!” I understand that sentiment completely. In today’s cultural climate, it would be far easier for me to recant a traditional view of marriage. In some ways, superficially, it would certainly feel nicer. But I have too much experience of another kind — of when niceness turns out to have no root in true kindness, compassion, or love. And, if any of us jump onto any sexual identity bandwagon simply because it enhances our privilege, or because it makes us appear more “woke,” then Lord have mercy on that.

Closing Thoughts

There are countless other experiences that shape a person’s perspective on human sexuality. The ones we’ve engaged here are only a few of the more common and influential in our changing world. They’re also experiences I’ve had personally. I’ve heard from gay friends describing their positive conviction about their own sexual expression, and their sense of God’s hand in it. I’ve seen firsthand so many of the good things (other than sexual expression) that same-sex relationships accomplish for people. I’ve witnessed the sense of calling, and the awesome gifting, of LGBTQ-identified folk in ministry. I’ve felt the societal friction and pressure against my traditional stance on marriage, as well as the acidic, manipulative, intolerant, and outright dishonest language of my colleagues in their caricature of my views. I have a sense of how “nice” and “easy” it would feel to support gay marriage.

But none of these things is anywhere near overcoming the larger body of my experience, which continues to point directly to God’s desire for monogamy in marriage between one man and one woman, and celibacy in singleness. I’m concerned that many of us are using basic personal experience to make enormous leaps into colossal theological conclusions. There should be a wide chasm between “this feels right to me” on one hand, and “this is undoubtedly God’s pure and perfect will” on the other. How quickly and how easily we’re launching between those two ideas is mind-boggling, and it should give every single one of us some pause. As powerful and as holy as Experience may be, it never stands on its own in our faith. We desperately need the other three lenses of the quadrilateral, and we also need a healthy dose of corporate experience.

For many of us, current United Methodist teaching on human sexuality is exactly that — a corporate experience across all manner of geography, time, culture, and more: all people are of sacred worth, but the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. This teaching unites me with billions of Christians stretching back to the first disciples; it connects to the Hebrew heritage underlying the Church; it traverses Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox Christianity; and it aligns with believers on every continent, in pre- and post-industrial nations, and especially with the “global South” where Methodism is exploding.

That is quite an experience. And I appreciate it very much.

Join us next week as we continue through the lens of “Reason.”

2 thoughts on “Method in our Madness (2/6)

  1. Josh, forgive another email. I just want to say that it is so life-giving for me to read your well-reasoned comments. I have been saying the same things to those I have conversations with about this issue, but almost always walk away feeling like I am being judged a “hater.” Thanks so much for sharing and may God bless you, Todd

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