The great theologian Avery Dulles often told a story from his days as a young priest, back in the heady days of 1968. He was on call at a parish outside of Baltimore, and after leading Mass he went back into the nave to say his thanksgiving. Kneeling in the pews, he looked up at the pulpit from which he had just preached, and noticed that it bore a large banner in front reading, “God is Other People.” It was, as he tells it, all he could do to resist the temptation to find a magic marker and place a big black comma after the word “other.”
There are few better illustrations of what sociologist Peter Berger describes as the natural human religious impulse. Religion tends to function as the “sacred canopy” that we throw over ourselves, the collective symbols by which we reify our most cherished collective ideals and self-images. It is, as Karl Barth put it, not really God but simply man speaking in a louder voice. The Old Testament can from one angle be summed up as the true God’s long struggle to bring around the people of Israel to worship the one Lord of heaven and earth instead of idols, gods of their own making made in their own image. And the Old Testament presses us to expect that about ourselves. We too are a “stiff-necked people.” We too are apt to stone the prophets. Every now and then we return to God and heed the law and the prophets, the Word from above that speaks against the world for the world. But most of the time we are Gomer, and our only hope is in the God who remains faithful to us even when we are not faithful to him.
We have all seen this at work in our parishes, indeed in our own hearts if we’re honest. Every church has its “sacred cows.” Change is often accompanied by deep anxiety, and this goes for clergy and laypeople both. A church is not just the house of God, but the collecting space for family memories, community ideals, and dear relationships. Whatever our cherished causes might be, on the right or on the left, we want church to reassure us that God is on our side.
This all is by way of reflection on something Fr. Philip Dinwiddie of Michigan said in the marriage committee several days ago. There had just been a hearing, and we had heard a long line of people testifying to the personal importance marriage equality held in their lives. The resolution before the committee was to reauthorize a Task Force on Marriage for the next triennium, to do further theological work in a manner representative of the theological and cultural diversity of the church (this has since passed both houses, for which I am quite grateful). But Dinwiddie, himself a supporter of same-sex marriage, made an interesting observation.
We should note, he pointed out, that anything a second task force might put in another report will almost certainly make no difference to the people who had just lined up to testify at the microphones. The best theological argument in the world wouldn’t change their minds. They were in effect claiming to have received God’s revelation, by the Holy Spirit. And so they were saying: Here I stand, and this I know. Like many today, they were going into their hearts and saying: Marriage inequality is just wrong. As such Dinwiddie questioned, with what I thought was real insight, what difference further study would make in the conversation.
I do not wish to deny the place of personal experience in theological ethics. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts the point, a tradition in good order is one that responds without hiding from objections raised against it. And many today certainly have experienced goods present in same-sex relationships, which they do not see affirmed in Scripture, tradition, or traditional churches they know. Many have faced the stark choice that Wesley Hill describes: “(1) Be ostracized (or worse) in church and effectively live without meaningful same-sex closeness of any kind or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex.”
But any responsibly theological ethics must also insist that personal or group experience cannot have the only word. A seminary dean, not known to be particularly conservative, made this point to me in one of the cavernous corridors of the convention center. Culture quite obviously is not always the same thing as the voice of God. Churches quite obviously have gone off the rails in capitulation to culture: take for instance the Dutch Reformed Church in apartheid South Africa. There must be a test for what we find when we go inside our hearts, for what we claim as revelation. We must, in other words, go beyond the simply anthropological, and try our best to say something theological instead, one that is responsive to the Word from God that is the prophet Amos’s plumb line that measures and finds wanting every merely human religion.
That is why our conversation about marriage must be biblical and theological in nature, and why it must be carried out in conversation with those with whom we will have sharp disagreements, with those who look different than we do, and with the poor and the oppressed.
George Lindbeck as part of the 1975 Hartford Appeal wrote: “An authentic revolution absorbs rather than abolishes the past, not in some vague quasi-Hegelian synthesis, but in the sense that it does what was previously done, and more.” “An authentic theological revolution … is one which comprehensively affirms the heritage even while reformulating, redirecting and extending it into new domains of experience and reality. It is, as Augustine, Aquinas, and the Reformers all illustrate, a return to the sources and not only an adjustment and assimilation of the new.”
Lindbeck continued, “A further related characteristic of a good paradigm shift is that it is not premature. It grows, so to speak, out of the soil of once fruitful, but now exhausted positions. Sharp conflict with the past is, to be sure, likely. Distorted or dessicated versions of old positions will be defended beyond their period of usefulness, and uncertainty regarding the proper pattern of the new breeds polemics rather than civil argument. This happens even in science during major theoretical transitions. But breakthroughs come only from exploring the full potentialities of the earlier phase … the ‘normal’ theological work of struggling seriously with both the strengths and weaknesses of the tradition is a necessary precondition for constructive paradigm shifts” (Berger and Neuhaus, Against the World For the World, Seabury Press, 1976).
Has the Episcopal Church reached a breakthrough in its theology of marriage, by thoroughly exploring the full potentialities of its earlier phase? Has it struggled seriously with both the strengths and the weaknesses of the tradition, and fully comprehended it even while extending it into new domains? Has it done so in a way that absorbs rather than abolishes the past, such that its position now does what was previously done, and more? Has it shown that the traditional theology of marriage is an exhausted position, now defended by some beyond its period of usefulness? Or is its change premature?
Bishop Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh in the House of Bishops said something that seems to me pertinent: “I think that we’ve got to have this conversation. I dispute the common observation that we’ve been talking about this for 40 years. It was not conversation; it was a pitched battle for control of the church.”
If that is true, then we need to attempt in the coming years to say something theological as a church, not just for the sake of “slowing down” decisions, but to measure our words by God’s plumb line, that we might speak not our own words but a genuine Word from above.
Fr. Jordan Hylden is a member of the Episcopal Church’s 2015-2018 Task Force on the Study of Marriage, and a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke Divinity School. His other posts are here.
The featured image is of George Whitefield by John Wollaston, from the National Portrait Gallery, London It is used under Creative Commons License.