The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Hermeneutics and homosexuals: Biblical authority for gay inclusion

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Student: Ronald E. George
Faculty: Dr. Lewis R. Donelson and Dr. William Greenway
CCA.702: The Bible and the Practice of Ministry
15 August 2004

I. Introduction

This paper comprises an essay on the promises and perils of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics, two readings of Gal. 3:23-29 and a meta-critique of those readings. It reflects a process of coming to terms with the school of postmodern philosophical thought and its implications for interpreting Christian scripture. The process of reading a given passage from two perspectives left the author of this paper in a quandary over whether the passage has a constructive role to play in forming a theology that would permit non-celibate homosexual ordination and marriage in the Episcopal Church.

II. Gadamer’s Philosophical Hermeneutics, Its Perils and Promises

Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics continue a tradition of philosophical response to scientific rationalism spawned by the Western European Enlightenment. Romanticism and its attendant neo-classicism tended to be an adverse reaction to the cultural effects of scientific reductionism and a philosophical strain that found its extreme expression in logical positivism. Nineteenth-century German idealism played a responsive role that is not clear from Paul Ricoeur’s discussion of the development of Gadamer’s hermeneutics, (Ricoeur 43-100) but which may be acknowledged as a dynamic of the middle phase of philosophical development from Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) through Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) to Gadamer (1900-2002).

Ricoeur’s discussion of Gadamer is key to the shape of this essay, which accepts Ricoeur’s judgment that the dynamics of Gadamer’s hermeneutics are best disclosed and critiqued by assessing his concept of tradition; indeed, Ricoeur refers to the hermeneutical aspect of Gadamer’s philosophy as “the hermeneutics of tradition.” (Ricoeur 64-78. Note: Ricoeur acknowledges that he’s focusing upon but one strain of Gadamer’s threefold argument vis a vis “alienating distanciation … the aesthetic sphere, the historical sphere and the sphere of language … [I]t must be remembered that in a sense the debate is already played out in the aesthetic sphere, just as it only culminates in the lingual experience whereby aesthetic consciousness and historical consciousness are brought to discourse.” [Ricoeur 65])

Gadamer’s project specifically addresses the problem he inherited from Schleiermacher, Dilthey and Heidegger, that which Ricoeur calls “the problem of the foundation of the human sciences,” (Ricoeur 65) but Gadamer’s theory broadens toward a fundamental theory of hermeneutics rooted in the ontology of human experience. In Heideggerian terms, this movement is an example of “deregionalisation.” (Ricoeur 44. Note: I have chosen “fundamental” rather than “general” in this context based on Ricoeur’s distinction.)

The problem of human sciences is rooted in whether it’s possible to give an exhaustive account of human history, society and culture by means that quantify human experience. In this, human sciences such as psychology have attempted to ape natural sciences by appropriating paradigms that yield purportedly objective information exclusive of the subjectivity of the observer. It’s not that scientific evidence has no value, but it cannot pretend to be the truth of understanding just because it’s objective. Natural science, too, is subject to history and culture and perhaps ought to give an account of these matrices or at least acknowledge them.

The human sciences have even less cause to build theory upon the sand of dubious objectivity, because human being and its cultures are even less susceptible to strictly rational inquiry. In any case, reductionist theory and practice can not provide an exhaustive account of human being. The problem of the human sciences, then, is not only to eschew aping natural science but also to discover interpretive principles by which human being-in-the-world can be truly disclosed and understood.

Gadamer’s push toward fundamental hermeneutics may be seen as a move beyond restoring the human sciences to their proper philosophical disposition to recalling natural science and its attendant cultural manifestations from the abyss of rationalistic arrogance, the principle accomplishment of which seems to have been human culture operating between the tragic poles of hubris and despair.

Gadamer grounds his critique of human science in the “alienating distanciation” of scientific method, which Ricoeur describes as “not merely a feeling or a mood, but rather the ontological presupposition which sustains the objective conduct of the human sciences.” (Ricoeur 65) Such alienation destroys the observer’s “sense of belonging” and sense of relationship with history. Gadamer thus appropriates Heidegger’s radical ontology of Dasein, “the being-there that we are,” from which humans are inextricable, regardless of reason’s power of abstraction. Gadamer’s “experience of belonging” is not a choice but an ontological condition of human being without which we can not understand our being-in-the-world.

It follows that Gadamer’s hermeneutics would run contrary to scientific rationalism by seeking to retrieve “prejudice,” in its ambivalent classical sense, (Ricoeur 67) tradition and authority from the dustbin into which they had been cast by the Enlightenment. Rationalism seeks to rise above these concepts in its search for objective truth, but Gadamer, again, maintains that such is not possible, that these three categories are constitutive of humanity’s being-in-the-world. Ricoeur says Gadamer, at this point, reiterates Heidegger’s “ontological transposition” of Dilthey, whose philosophy yet languished in an effort to formulate a psychological epistemology that failed to give an adequate account of history. (Ricoeur 52-53. Note: Dilthey’s focus on psychology is an apparent holdover from Schleiermacher, whose hermeneutics were grounded in discerning the thought, if not the intention, of the author of a text. Both were caught up in developing epistemologies that would account for human consciousness without explaining it in “purely rational” scientific terms.)

Rehabilitating prejudice, tradition and authority provokes debate over the “primacy of judgment” implicit in rationalism’s ascendance against the ideologies of Renaissance Europe, an issue not satisfactorily addressed by Romanticism, but which the hermeneutics of historical consciousness address as a fundamental flaw. Gadamer maintains, as Dilthey could not, (Gadamer 245) that prejudice is not the opposite of reason but “a component of understanding, linked to the finite historical character of the human being.” (Ricoeur 71) Likewise, Gadamer argues that authority is not merely a function of domination and violence, but that it is based on acceptance and recognition and can not be bestowed but only acquired. (Gadamer 248) The ontology of authority is linked to its being “constantly an element of freedom and of history itself … At any rate, preservation [of tradition] is as much a freely-chosen action as revolution and renewal. That is why both the enlightenment’s critique of tradition and its romantic rehabilitation are less than their true historical being.” (Gadamer 250)

Gadamer rises to his full stature in the development of hermeneutics for the human sciences through his ontological interpretation of prejudice, authority and tradition. (Ricoeur 73. Note: It is here, as well, that we see the purpose of Ricoeur’s approach to the subject, for he sees Habermas’ categories approaching Gadamer’s hermeneutics at “the same level of the self-understanding of the social sciences.”) Gadamer plunges beneath methodology to the reflective consciousness that drives it: consciousness of the effects of history. Gadamer says, significantly, that we are “situated” in history, that it is a condition of our being-in-the-world, which means we are as much a part of our past as our future. Human consciousness, says Gadamer, is determined by historical process. Speaking ontologically, it’s the way we are. Phenomenological analysis distils Gadamer’s sense of human consciousness in history into four parts: the facticity of historical distance; the lack of historically unconditioned overview; the unrestricted horizon of human existence; and the dialectic of the fusion of horizons.

It is paradoxical that while we live situated in history, not juxtaposed with the past, that we must acknowledge our hermeneutical distance from the past. Gadamer insists that the distance be maintained in order to defuse the methodological idea that distance “creates a situation comparable to the objectivity of the natural sciences.” (Ricoeur 74)

Human consciousness does not have a privileged overview of history, according to Gadamer. Human finitude is a condition of human existence, and in this Gadamer is linked with Heidegger’s ontological concepts of the “situation” and the “thrown-ness” of human existence.

Despite human finitude, however, there is no limit to the horizon of human consciousness in history, and this concept is placed over against the idea of putting one’s self in the place of another to realize historical objectivity. Such objective distancing destroys the dialectic that exists between the subject and the text and, in Ricoeur’s words, “suspends both the tension of points of view and the claim of tradition to transmit a true speech about what is.” (Ricoeur 75)

That “tension of points of view” occurs in the fusion of horizons described by Gadamer as the ontological dialectic of historical consciousness. Gadamer thus repudiates the objectivism cited above and Hegel’s idea of universal history perceived through a unique horizon. Moreover, the fusion of horizons, the encounter with otherness, brings the concept of prejudice into the dialectic in a critical sense: It is only within such dialectical tension – the fusion of open horizons – that I can examine prejudice as an operative aspect of my historicity.

Ricoeur proposes three aspects for understanding the meta-critique, or critique of critique, of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. First, Gadamer’s hermeneutics are responsive to science’s demand for universality by claiming to cover science’s domain and by showing that scientific findings are not an exhaustive account of what is true. Second, the hermeneutics of historical consciousness arise from the specific to the general, and through deregionalization and critique constantly challenge the tendency to substitute methodology for understanding. (Note: Might such a project be called demethodologicalization?) Third, according to Ricoeur, an essential key to the universality of Gadamer’s philosophy is the inherent misunderstanding of language itself, in the sense that all conversation, all dialectic, occurs in a situation of ignorance, of the desire to know what’s not known. Quoting Gadamer, Ricoeur writes: “No assertion is possible that cannot be understood as an answer to a question, and assertions can only be understood in this way.” (Ricoeur 78)

The Perils

Ricoeur discloses the perils of Gadamer’s hermeneutics by giving voice to Jurgen Habermas, who critiques the ideological aspects of Gadamer from the standpoint of neo-Marxism. (Ricoeur 78-87) Ricoeur presents Habermas as offering correlative alternatives to troubling aspects of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. I would add that one doesn’t have to embrace Habermas’ point of view to be concerned about some of the trajectories of ontological hermeneutics.

Habermas addresses Gadamer’s optimistic embrace of prejudice, in the classical sense, by claiming that the interests of critical theory seek to unmask, rather than affirm, that which conserves oppressive structures of knowledge. Among such interests, that which is most contrary to Gadamer is the interest in emancipation, through which Habermas distinguishes between the “human sciences” of Gadamer’s theory and the “critical social sciences” by which, through reflection and critique, the subject may be liberated “from dependence on hypostatised powers.” (Ricoeur 82. Note: Such powers might be called, in a more rhetorically political atmosphere, “the establishment.”) In theory, at least, Gadamer seems to have provided against such institutional blindness by placing prejudice, in his specialized sense, within the dialectical process of knowing, such that it is open to change and critique. Nevertheless, given the fearsome appropriation of rationalism, for example, by the perpetrators of the industrial revolution, I would treat with extreme skepticism any optimistic view of prejudice, in whatever sense.

Habermas expands his critique by suggesting, via psychoanalysis, that ideology is a systemic problem for Gadamer’s ontological hermeneutics, precisely due to its grounding in prejudice, tradition and authority. Productive self-critique is unlikely due to inevitable distortion of perception by centers with a vested interest in the status quo. Moreover, according to Habermas, there is no way out of the ontological system because distortions “are unrecognisable by the members of the community” and “misrecognition is insurmountable by the directly dialogical route” upon which hermeneutics depend. (Ricoeur 84)

Habermas, according to Ricoeur, is most critical of ontologized hermeneutics, by which “he means its insistence on understanding or accord, as if the consensus which precedes us were something constitutive, something given in being.” (Ricoeur 86) It’s as though there were an answer waiting to be discovered, recognition of which is predicated on the subject’s appropriation of and abiding regard for tradition and authority. This critique, again, is based on a worst-case scenario, but even so, it’s not unlikely. The application of Gadamer’s theory seems to rest on the continuing and relentless goodwill of those who perceive. Such optimism has not been well rewarded in the past 200 years, especially in Germany and in the American West.

Ricoeur himself questions whether Gadamer’s hermeneutics successfully address the problem of “critical instance,” (Ricoeur 88-91) which seems to be a problem native to ontologies in general. The problem is one of whether ontology ever truly works its way back to epistemological issues, of whether the general is ever truly manifested in the particular in any practical way. “Ontological hermeneutics,” writes Ricoeur, “seems incapable, for structural reasons, of unfolding this problematic of return.” (Ricoeur 88)

Gadamer doesn’t ignore the problem, but Ricoeur wonders whether the phenomenology of Gadamer’s hermeneutics doesn’t preclude, by default, consideration of critical instance. “It seems to me that Gadamer’s hermeneutics is prevented from embarking upon this route, not simply because, as with Heidegger, all effort of thought is invested in the radicalisation of the problem of foundation, but because the hermeneutical experience itself discourages the recognition of any critical instance.(Ricoeur 90) Ricoeur proposes that foundational issues – the experience of belonging and alienating distanciation – become “the mainspring, the key to the inner life, of hermeneutics.”(Ricoeur 90)

Ricoeur proposes, moreover, that hermeneutics divorce itself from “the ruinous dichotomy, inherited from Dilthey, between ‘explanation’ and ‘understanding'”(Ricoeur 92) and the idea that “the matter of the text” can be a naïve reading devoid of structural analysis. (Ricoeur 93) Again, these problems would be remedied, according to Ricoeur, by holding “the experience of belonging” and “alienating distanciation” in dialectical tension rather than ontological disjunction.

Ricoeur envisions a pact between hermeneutics and critical theory. He cautions against the schools’ arguing themselves away from each other lest they become ideological. (Ricoeur 100) He points to ways in which the schools intersect; and that, indeed, Habermas’ critique of ideology relies upon the insights of hermeneutics for its operative insights.(Ricoeur 95-100)

Ricoeur argues that the underlying theory of interests is neither empirical nor truly theoretical but “dependant upon a philosophical anthropology similar to Heidegger’s Analytic of Dasein, and more particularly to his hermeneutics of ‘care’ … “(Ricoeur 95)

Ricoeur challenges Habermas’ conjunction of “critical social science and the interest in emancipation.”(Ricoeur 96) According to Ricoeur, “The task of the hermeneutics of tradition is to remind the critique of ideology that man can project his emancipation and anticipate an unlimited and unconstrained communication only on the basis of the creative reinterpretation of cultural heritage.”(Ricoeur 91) Habermas’ discussion of “distortions of communicative competence” that lead to institutional reification, “which renders it unrecognisable [sic] to the participants of communication,” “would be quite empty and abstract if it were not situated on the same plane as the historical-hermeneutic sciences,”

Ricoeur argues in a broader sense that Habermas’ critique of Western capitalism, which identifies a profound ideological shift from productivity to rationality itself, (Ricoeur 98) as being virtually meaningless in terms of emancipation without the insights of hermeneutics.

[H]ow can the interest in emancipation remain anything other than a pious vow, save by embodying it in the reawakening of communicative action itself? And upon what will you concretely support the reawakening of communicative action, if not upon the creative renewal of cultural heritage? (Ricoeur 99)

Finally, Ricoeur argues that Habermas’ theory of the “regulative idea” is but an ideal rooted in cultural tradition, the province of hermeneutics.

Critique is also a tradition. I would even say that it plunges into the most impressive tradition, that of liberating acts, of the Exodus and the Resurrection. Perhaps there would be no more interest in emancipation, no more anticipation of freedom, if the Exodus and the Resurrection were effaced from the memory of mankind. (Ricoeur 99-100)

The Promises

I am interested in the purchase Gadamer’s hermeneutics provide for the practice of spiritual direction, which, at least in part, is the practice of conversing about prayer in meaningful ways. As this would apply to interpreting Christian scripture, I am interested in connections that might be made between the hermeneutics of tradition and the role of “spiritual interpretation” in Boff’s liberation theology. Understanding and exploring that connection would be invaluable in the practice of spiritual direction in pastoral settings wherein operate the issues of poverty and socioeconomic discrimination.

The hermeneutics of human consciousness in history seem to hold that we can not know the thing itself, but that we may only interpret our experience of it, and Gadamer argues that our being-in-the-world itself is linguistic. Interpreting Gadamer, Palmer writes: “Such is the saying power of language that it creates the world within which everything may be disclosed.”(Palmer 207)

By “everything,” I understand “everything that language may conceive,” including our concepts of God, and through which we may be in dialogue, especially the many forms of prayer. The thing itself is not elusive but inaccessible; however, because we have linguistic minds, we experience the eternal God unseen and ever near as well as the seen, the creation, even that which is far beyond reach.

Gadamer seems to be giving us a way to talk about prayer as a way of knowing, in practical terms, rooted in the linguisticality of experience. Prayer is nothing if not linguistic, for even that which is apophatic is such in relation to linguisticality – it is the “negative way,” negative in the sense that she who prays chooses silence.

For Boff, interpreting scripture spiritually seems to imply liturgical prayer, the community in worship and study of scripture, along a trajectory toward action on behalf of the poor. As such, it seems to partake in theory of Ricouer’s insight that the hermeneutics of tradition and critical theory might do well to think of each other as indispensable aspects of discovering what is true.

III. Two readings of Galatians 3:23-29

Liberating the Poor in Spirit

This reading of Gal. 3:23-29 is derived from the biblical hermeneutics of liberation theology,(Segovia 283-306) or socioeconomic criticism. Biblical interpretation became central to liberation theology, because, as a practical matter, the Bible is the Christian text most available to the poor. Biblical reflection in Christian base communities has been fundamental to the movement’s popularity since the 1960s, and it has underlain the movement’s most authoritative claims within church tradition.

Liberation theology interprets the Christian kerygma as it pertains to the systematic oppression of the poor, including those marginalized by social discrimination, such as women and racial and gender minorities. It utilizes Marxist social critique to disclose the milieu subject to kerygmatic transformation. Its vision of the church is stratified but inverted, in the sense that the concerns of the poor and dispossessed are fundamental to the church’s identity and mission.

The primary concern of hermeneutics in this system is to overcome what Gadamer might call “alienating distanciation” by discovering “the original meaning of the text.”(Segovia 288) The model is that of a “hermeneutical circle” that posits “a sustained relationship between [written] texts and readers.” (Segovia 288) Thus scripture is properly interpreted only by the “living spirit of the living community.”(Segovia 289) The goal of interpretation is not a “right meaning” but “a creative act on the part of the reader, a response to scripture within the context of the hermeneutic circle.”(Segovia 289)

I like this reading of scripture because it appears to be most consistent with my own appreciation of the gospel message as it relates to contemporary society. It doesn’t pretend to universality but declares a focused purpose to liberate the oppressed. It is a tangible reading of scripture that confronts the contradictions of Christian practice allied with structures of power and oppression for the sake of institutional survival. Like the canonical gospels, it challenges me with a vision of the church that is disconcerting, so unlikely am I ever to rise to its demands.

I am troubled, however, by the selectivity of this method, which “favors certain biblical texts over others.”(Segovia 296) I am cloyed by the idealization of Jesus and the seamless connection the Boffs would draw between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. I don’t believe the whole Bible ought to be read with a “christological key,” and, with Segovia, I am troubled by the untended ideology of the Boffs’ approach, that of the Roman Catholic tradition and its “very traditional view of the authority of the scriptures, of the theological dimensions of interpretation, and of the ecclesiastical character of criticism.”(Segovia 303)

The application of socioeconomic hermeneutics may not appear to be entirely appropriate in this case, if one considers the wider milieu within which socioeconomic hermeneutics operate. I believe, however, that the exegetical model explicated by Segovia (Segovia 290-291) is appropriate, because it does not rely on the wider context of liberation theology to be of use in other contexts.

The hermeneutic model is that of a “correspondence-of-relationships strategy,” which Clodovis Boff says results in “a ‘spiritual’ meaning, ‘a basic identity of signification'” (Segovia 291) for the interpreting community. The corresponding relationships may be expressed in the following equation.

Scripture <=> Its context = “Theology of the political” <=> Its context

“Scripture” is the text itself, and its context is derived using a variety of historical-critical tools. “Theology of the political,” in this case, refers to political issues implied in the passage – the relative standing of Jews, Greeks, males, females, slaves and free persons – as they relate to the current standing of homosexual persons in the church.

In structural terms, the model creates a methodological gap to be bridged by spiritual interpretation, which Boff says mimics the attitude “creative fidelity” of the early Christian community toward the Jesus of history. (Segovia 290) Neither context nor message coerces either side of the equation, but meaning is discovered by spiritual reflection in the aporia.

In theoretical terms, this method clearly defines horizons of meaning to be merged and accepts the incongruity of attempting to discover the mind of the author and the meaning of the text to his original audience and whether these apply to contemporary readings. At the same time, the method acknowledges the role of tradition in interpretation, by disclosing the text in its context. A proper reading under this method will acknowledge the prejudice that use of liberation hermeneutics in this case may be inappropriate.

I chose this text in context of the Lord’s Day preaching ministry at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, Madisonville, Texas, from the ordinary cycle of readings for The Episcopal Church, U.S.A. Gal. 3:32-29 is one of three biblical texts appointed for use on Sunday, June 20, 2004. (BCP 919. Note: The other texts are Zech. 12:8-10, 13.1; and Luke 9:18-24.) I am lay pastor of this small, rural congregation. The culture and the church are socio-politically conservative.

Holy Innocents is one of the least of congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Average Sunday attendance is 15 to 20. The church might have been closed years ago had it not been debt free. It receives no diocesan financial support. Its membership is mostly mature adults, with a smattering of young parents with children. Most members drive 10 to 20 miles to attend services. Few actually live in Madisonville.

Recent controversy over the election, confirmation and ordination of a non-celibate homosexual bishop in New Hampshire shook the denomination’s national governing bodies and rumbled through local dioceses and congregations. At Holy Innocents, heated reaction to the bishop’s election during a Sunday Bible study provoked a man to “come out” to the congregation, saying he was offended by discussion of “those people and their agenda.” “I am one of those people,” he said. “Do you have a problem with that?”

The man is a popular member and treasurer of the congregation, and few were surprised at his announcement, but some responded by suggesting that while they had “no problem” with him, they were troubled by the ordination of homosexuals who were not celibate. Tension was palpable among the congregation. A few weeks later, a couple began attending another Episcopal church. The homosexual man remained at Holy Innocents, having overcome misgivings of his own. He is not the only homosexual member of the congregation, but he’s the only one who has let it be known.

I have made clear my position that, while I will support the policy of our diocesan bishop not to ordain non-celibate homosexuals or authorize ceremonies solemnizing homosexual marriage, I believe homosexuals should be accorded full membership in the church, especially as regards marriage and ordination. (Note: My positions were expressed not in preaching but in essays distributed to the congregation via e-mail.

The text appears as follows in The New Revised Standard Version, a translation authorized for use in the Episcopal Church.

Gal. 3:23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (NSRV, New Testament 316)

My reading focuses on Paul’s understanding of the radical nature of Christian baptism in transforming human beings into members of the body of Christ. (1 Cor. 2:12) Baptism, according to this passage, transforms human relationships such that former social distinctions no longer apply.

Context of the text is Paul’s participation in fierce controversy among and within Christian congregations over whether gentiles should be permitted to embrace Christianity without first submitting to the cultic demands of Judaism; namely, male circumcision. Underlying this controversy is whether gentiles are redeemable as such, without first becoming ritually pure Jews. The exact nature of Paul’s opposition is not clear from Galatians, but it is likely that it covered a broad range of objections to the gentile mission, the most extreme form of which may have been outright opposition to non-Jews becoming Christians at all.

It is more likely, however, that most of this debate was about what level of “Jewishness” gentiles must embrace to be admitted to Christian fellowship. First-century Judaism had “missionaries”; indeed, Paul himself may have been an itinerant Jewish proselytizer before his conversion, and it was not uncommon for gentiles to be counted among synagogue worshippers as “God-fearers.” The gentile controversy in Galatians suggests that the Christian community may have been debating whether to be an inclusive or exclusive society of Messianic Jews. It seems to have been “setting the bar” for those seeking membership in the Body of Christ. Paul argues in Galatians that baptism, not circumcision, is what sets Christians apart; further, that baptism obviated the need for social distinctions among Christian people.

To make his point, Paul argues from the deepest and most obvious divisions among those who composed the Christian community. What could be deeper than the distinction between Jew and “Greek,” or “non-Jew”? What could be deeper than the distinction between slave and free? What could be deeper than the distinction God created between male and female? Paul made this argument not on the basis of social equality in the church – although that may have been an outcome – but to underscore the radical nature of baptism, which reached further than circumcision into the ontology of the human spirit, because it made Christians one with God in Christ and “members one of another.” (Romans 12:5)

Paul would have been the last to argue that the litany of reconciliation in Gal. 3:28 might be expanded to include “gay and straight,” but the distinction between these categories is not dissimilar from those Paul enunciates, and in light of contemporary science and demands for social justice, its time the church recognize that baptism as Paul understood it transforms even dichotomies that he did not appreciate.

Excluding non-celibate homosexuals from the sacraments of ordination and marriage make them second-class members of the church. First-century ignorance of human sexual development is no excuse for failing to accommodate church practices to the spiritual yearnings of homosexual people. In a nutshell, if the church does not believe non-celibate homosexuals are susceptible to the sacraments of ordination and marriage, then the church should exclude them from baptism. Requiring that Christian homosexuals be celibate is an intolerable double standard put upon a minority group that has historically offered much to the church, despite its being repressed by an unspoken code of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The church’s failure in this regard participates as well in the systematic denial of social equality and legal protection for homosexuals in secular society. The church’s prophetic role in society demands that it be in the forefront – not on the sidelines and certainly not among the opposition – of those advocating full civil rights for homosexual people, including marriage and all that pertains to the phrase, “equal protection under the law.”

This reading adheres to the stated method by putting the passage in historic and contemporary contexts then speaking prophetically to the church from the aporia. The reading is informed by a preferential option for those believed to be depersonalized and discriminated against by church and secular law.

This is not the homily I preached from this text, but it formed the backdrop of reflection I brought to the following theme: “God calls us into the Body of Christ where discriminatory distinctions make no sense, because baptism changes us by the power of love to become one in the spirit.” There is no compelling reason to relate this theme to other texts, although it provides contemporary perspective in answer to Jesus’ question in the gospel lesson and a meditation on the Christ who suffers for and with those who suffer discrimination. It is not unlikely that the tradition’s association of Jesus with the text from Zechariah might supplement the sub-theme of the suffering Christ.

My role in the congregation is that of preacher, teacher and exemplar. By preaching, teaching and example, the message to the congregation and the wider community is that all sorts and conditions of humanity are to be embraced by the Body of Christ in Madison County, whether that be at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church or some other congregation. The only principle of power I can conceive in this context is that of incarnation. Values expressed in this reading and the preaching and teaching that come from it have no weight unless they’re enacted by the church and its pastors.

This text has been key to liberating women and minorities, especially blacks, from second-class status in the church, but I wonder whether reaching for it again will be as effective in the struggle for dignity and respect for homosexual people. There is a leap to the unspoken that, in principle, is easy to see, but in fact, given the unwillingness of most Christian people to hear it, makes little purchase against a form of bigotry that appears to be more deeply rooted than either racism or sexism.

Despite the passage’s silence regarding homosexuals, it is not far-fetched to maintain the historical analogy between the three categories of Galatians 3:32-39 and the public yearnings of contemporary homosexual communities. In each case, deeply-rooted, ideological, social mores were overthrown to accommodate a better, more compassionate understanding of human relationships in church and society. The theology of this passage establishes a principle that may be universally applicable whenever the church would exclude classes of people yearning for membership in the Body of Christ.

To some, a troubling aspect of total inclusion is that it appears to move the contemporary church away from what apparently has been a traditional pattern – exclusion of the unrepentant. Exclusivity seems to have been an important aspect of the church’s early appeal; indeed, it may have been essential to the early church’s identity. We seem to have had good reasons for reversing that identifying mark over the centuries, but if, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, every cat and dog is a Christian, then can there be something distinctive about Christian being-in-the-world? One possible answer would be Boff’s: Yes, as expressed in the church’s preferential option for the poor, which is not exactly a mainstream value.

It’s legitimate to ask whether adopting the language of liberation theology is appropriate for the cause of homosexual people in a church setting that is predominantly white and middle-class. It seems a far cry from the streets of Sao Paolo to the courts of praise at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, where no one is systematically excluded from the benefits of American socioeconomic society. If our frame of reference, however, is that of human consciousness, not the facticity of poverty, and our project is the interpretation of “God’s word to the poor,” then how can liberation theology in general and this reading of scripture in particular not pertain to the poor in spirit whose exclusion from full participation in the church is an abomination to God?

Liberating homosexuals from church discrimination also would mean liberating the church from whatever false sense of security that may pertain to excluding misunderstood people from ordained ministry, not to mention the hypocrisy of ordaining homosexuals under the double standard cited above. Such a movement by the church would be one of repentance for the forgiveness of sin and, ultimately, would make of the church a kinder, gentler community, less given to prejudice. The strident tone of political debate attendant upon this issue makes this scenario unlikely, perhaps as abstract an empty as Habermas’ “regulative idea.” Christians, however, are called to live in hope, not hoping against hope, but believing that God who raised Jesus from the dead also raises justice and reconciliation out of injustice, regardless of how long it takes.

Managing Millenarianism

The social-scientific school of biblical interpretation has precursors in 19th-century biblical scholarship, to the extent that one of sociology’s seminal thinkers, Max Weber, “was influenced by Rudolph Sohm’s debates with Adolph von Harnack, as well as by Julius Wellhausen’s analysis of the development of ancient Israel.” (Martin 125) It wasn’t until the mid-20th century, however, that current scholarly interest in the various methods of this school were initiated by the contributions of John Gager, John Elliott, Gerd Theissen and Wayne A. Meeks. (Martin 126-129)

In a 1972 article, Meeks propounded the theory that one of the primary functions of the Gospel of John was to legitimate the social rupture between the Christian community and synagogue. (Martin 129)

In 1973, Thiessen, analyzed gospel texts to “reconstruct the prehistory of Palestinian Christianity,” proposing that Jesus’ role was that of an “itinerant radical” and “wandering charismatic” supported by more conventional, sympathetic social elements. (Martin 128) In 1975, Gager published Kingdom and Community, in which he used social-scientific theory to propose that early Christianity was “millenarian movement” profoundly affected by the “cognitive dissonance” caused by the world’s not coming to an end. (Martin 127)

In 1978, Elliott published A Home for the Homeless, an exegesis of I Peter that reconstructs the community to which the letter was written by analyzing social functions disclosed in the text, such as those expressed in the household code of I Peter 2:13-3:7. (Martin 127)

Martin observes that the school’s method is difficult to define for want of agreed-upon criteria, but that generally, its scholars “interpret early Christian literature and history through categories borrowed from the social sciences, sociology, and anthropology in particular.” (Martin 125)

A key debate in this scholarly community that has direct bearing upon the efficacy of this type of reading concerns the application of socio-scientific models as interpretative matrices through which to discover what sociological or anthropological dynamics lie behind biblical texts. The range of such models is broad, from carefully refined taxonomies to “flexible appropriation of social-historical categories.” (Martin 130)

Such is the problem posed by postmodern critique of scientific method vis a vis the social sciences; viz., that method does not inoculate the observer against ideological bias. The most healthy scholarly attitude within the school of social-scientific criticism seems to be that of Susan R. Garrett, who describes her method not as scientific but as hermeneutic. (Martin 131)

Martin concludes:

Nonetheless, these various scholars share the belief that all language is ineluctably social, that religion is to be interpreted as woven into the complex fabric of social structures and symbolic matrices, and that sociology and anthropology can provide useful perspectives and methods for interpreting the function of religion in society. (Martin 132)

The strength of this approach is that it draws together texts and artifacts into a dynamic relationship, enhancing contemporary appreciation not only of the content of scripture but also of the culture – not just the sitz im leben – within which scripture was deployed. It provides readers with linguistic contextual keys based not upon sentimental reconstruction of what might have been but upon a firmer foundation of sociological and anthropological knowledge, theoretical though much of it may be.

It would be perilous, however, not to examine socio-scientific biblical theories constantly for ideological bias and not to critique the tendency toward reductionism that has marked historical-critical biblical scholarship from its earliest days.

A social-scientific reading of Gal. 3:23-29 focuses on the nature of the community to which the letter was addressed and analyzes the structure of the community through the use of sociological models.

It is likely that Gager’s description of Christianity as a “millenarian movement” would apply to the churches of Galatia, although I would rephrase that assessment to reflect the church’s status at the time of this letter as a “millenarian sect” within Judaism. (Martin 127) It is likely that this letter was written in the late 40s or early 50s of the Common Era, (Briggs 309) so it is unlikely that the community to which it was written was independent of diaspora Judaism. Its institutional structure probably was primitive. It is unlikely, for example, that the community owned real property or that its members had founded a place of worship apart from the local synagogue. It is more likely that early Christians met in members’ homes for distinctively Christian worship (see, e.g., 12:12, Rom 16:5,14,15, 1 Cor 16:19, Col 4:15 and Philemon 2).

It is too early for “cognitive dissonance” over the delay of the parousia to have driven the community’s identity crisis. (Martin 127) It is likely that this community was a first generation of Christians still imbued with conversion enthusiasm and, apparently, according to Paul’s letter, beset and confused by controversy. Sociological legitimation (Martin 134) plays a role in the composition of this letter, but it is directed less toward the Latin culture outside than the controversial interior of the Galatian communities populated by at least two types of Christians – Jewish and gentile. Paul not only apologizes theologically in this letter but also makes a case for the community’s practices and assumptions about whom to admit to membership. There is clearly a power struggle under way. Paul seems to be trying to defuse conflict by raising members’ sights to a higher plane of discussion. (Galatians 6:1-10)

A conflict model would disclose “what structures and operations of power are reflected” in Galatians. (Martin 136) It is likely that the Galatian conflict occurs within a tightly-knit, strictly hierarchical group with well-defined leadership roles. The model is significant for appreciating Paul’s argument that “in Christ” (presumably the phrase referred to the particular community as well as “the church” as a theological category), all are one without distinction.

Paul’s assumptions about the structure of the community are clear in Gal. 3:23-29: Converts are compared to children. The term has a double meaning, however, and it’s likely that the primary meaning, based on Paul’s argument, is that, through baptism, gentile members had become children of Abraham no less than Jewish members. But the term also refers to the structure of the community, perhaps adding weight to the theology: Converts, “children,” are subject to the hierarchical leadership of apostles and elders, but their status is no less than that of Jewish members “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

It is doubtful that Paul’s rhetorical flourish – “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” – has any practical application in the community beyond the assumption that all have become “children.” Paul is certainly not making an argument for the political equality of men and women, slaves and masters. It is clear from Paul’s other writings that he expected women to be subservient to men (I Cor. 14:34-36) and slaves to their masters. (Eph. 6:5-8) Moreover, Gal. 3:23-29 suggests that liberation from several social distinctions probably meant, in practice, little more than that all become children under apostolic authority.

It was not within Paul’s socio-religious frame of reference to liberate women from men and slaves from their masters. He doubtless would have found such a proposal preposterous, because it is clear from other Christian writings that Paul’s concept of the community of faith was one of orderly homogeneity, (1 Corinthians 14:40) the disrupting of which he regarded as blasphemous. (I Cor. 11:20-22) With the rest of the community, Paul looked forward to the imminent return of Christ and being caught up into the air at the end of time. (I Thess. 4:13-18) The churches he founded were to be exclusive of anyone, Jew or gentile, who did not embrace prescribed apostolic teachings, which Paul describes in Romans as “my gospel.” (Rom. 2:16) It is unlikely, therefore, that Paul would propose a social structure for the church that did not mirror larger society, which in any case was soon to be overthrown. It was of the nature of this community to be steadfast until the end, and it relied upon a species of sectarian absolutism to keep members in line – as “children” – until the end.

This reading interrogates theological moves to understand this text as a liberating message for women, slaves and other groups oppressed by social structures. The early Christian community was not interested in socio-political freedom but spiritual liberation from the world and what it saw as false religion. Converts paid a price for such liberation, and it’s not unseemly for contemporary readers to see it as another form of bondage. There may have been no Jews or Greeks among the faithful because all had been lumped into an underclass to be led by apostles and elders and to be saved from the wrath to come.

The gospels had not been written when Paul’s letters began circulating among Christian communities. Mark’s gospel may have been written almost two decades after the letter to the Galatians. It’s difficult not to conclude that the early church’s social structure imposed itself upon the gospels’ later efforts to interpret the life and ministry of Jesus; especially, e.g., his setting aside of the Twelve, their privileged place among the many, perhaps hundreds, of followers and their commission to bind and loose. Gospel authors had clear interests in legitimating the early church – its structure, its teachings, its practices – by shaping Jesus traditions according to what types of communities had emerged in the decades after the crucifixion. The overriding concern of Mark’s gospel, for example, may have been to cope with the cognitive dissonance of maintaining a millenarian sect into an indefinite future.

IV. Meta-critique: Five Questions

What kind of reader do I become in light of these methods?

In light of these methods and how they have shaped my appreciation of Gal. 3:23-29, I would be less likely to believe that any reading of ancient texts, especially of the Bible by Christians, to be coercively true, excluding all others. In the current controversial climate of the Episcopal Church, wherein scripture is the first line of argument regarding homosexuality, I would be more likely to listen for whatever truth there may be in another’s interpretation, while bringing forth my own in dialogical tension. Somewhere in the gap between contradictory interpretations, there may be patch of common ground, however small. My movement would be toward others, to make the gap as small as possible, and I would encourage others to do likewise, so that we might not have to shout across a chasm.

Current Episcopalian controversy also centers upon the authority of scripture; in fact, this is said by some to be the principal debate, not whether non-celibate homosexuals should be ordained and their marriages blessed. In this context, I would be a reader for whom scripture has moral authority, but always within the creative tensions of many possible readings, especially in light of burgeoning scientific knowledge.

I would be a prayerful reader, for that, finally, is the means by which I am most apt to appropriate the meaning of scripture for myself and the congregation I serve. It’s especially pertinent to the practices of liberation theology to align one’s self with Christ spiritually in the reading of scripture, and that first of all amid the community of faith. While social-scientific criticism may seem less pertinent to prayerful appropriation of scripture, it’s not, because whatever informs one’s mind also informs one’s prayer. Very little of what I know and what I believe is not brought forward in prayer, which fundamentally is being open to the spirit of truth. Foremost among spiritual values in this process is the God-given humility to acknowledge that what I know is little, and that what I believe is subject to change, which is the essence of being-in-the-world.

What is my relationship with the text?

My relationship with the text is one of respectful distance. I would acknowledge that I can not know the mind of the author, and that, in any case, what the author meant and what it means to me may be radically different. I believe this is certainly true in the case of Gal. 3:23-29, and I wonder, now, whether I’ll ever again be confident of using this text as a point of departure for arguing in favor of including homosexuals in the full life of the church. I doubt that I will give up the argument, but I may have to give up the text. (Note: It is beyond the scope of this paper to propose a reading that would reconcile the two perspectives presented herein. It would not be an unlikely marriage, but though I do believe a case could be made, I wonder whether, in my ignorance, I might further abuse the text rather than enlist its support.)

Just as I can not know the author’s mind, I can not much more than theorize about the community of Galatians. Respectful distance, again, would be my relationship with the text, because, though details be few, what little I do know is that the church of Galatians is quite different from the church in 21st-century Madisonville, Texas. I must respect that difference, but also the distance by acknowledging that simple transpositions and impositions upon current issues is not respectful or helpful in interpreting the text.

What’s my vulnerability to the text?

I am vulnerable to this text because it may not say what I want it to say. Looking at it from these different perspectives has disclosed my ideological disposition, and I am truly chastened by that. The text stands, but I’m hearing it differently, perhaps more honestly, and I yield to the alienating distance brought about by a change in perspective. Once there seemed to be a bridge, but now it has been torn away.

It’s disconcerting to be less sure of something I once was sure of, to have a piece of scripture – armor, if you will – stripped from my theological argument. Perhaps I have been blessed with cognitive dissonance that may lead to interpretation built less upon the sand of my prejudice and more upon a sure foundation I haven’t yet discovered. Having said that, I hear easy answers crowding forward – e.g., “accept the clear meaning of the text” – but we’ve learned nothing through the development of postmodern thought if we believe that the phrase “clear meaning” has any meaning apart from the culture within which meaning occurs.

What kind of values am I invoking in myself?

Short answer: spiritual values, which compose a larger category than intellectual values, ethical values or moral values. Spirituality informs the purpose of my life, shapes the contours of my behavior and defines the interests of my intellect. The purpose of my being a serious student of theology is to engage life in the spirit fully, to know as well as to will and to do.

Scripture has a foundational role in all this, scripture within the theological tradition I have embraced and through which I understand myself before God. Among the values this stance implies is loyalty, especially to the idea – not always easy to accommodate – that scripture “contains all things necessary to salvation,” as must be publicly declared by those about to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. While it’s true that interpretations of that statement are many and varied, any who embrace it must be loyal to the task of reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting scripture as a continuous, daily task. So, if diligence is a value, I would have it be one of mine, especially regarding the appropriation of scripture, and that in the context of a rule of prayer shaped by Anglican tradition.

What kind of person is implied by these readings?

Given the “linguisticality of being” and the continuous conversation I would have with God, I hope that I am the kind of person who is open to meanings and to Meaning – the meanings of others and the Meaning of my being-in-the-world before God. The meanings of others, even those that are dissonant and disconcerting, are important for the perspectives they bring to our conversation about life in general and the particular ways Christians interpret life through scripture, tradition and reason. Such meanings contribute over time to my sense of Meaning, especially as they contribute to the time I spend in prayer, disposed to bring these meanings into a context of spiritual openness for meditation, colloquy and silence. Which brings to mind a passage from the psalms that expresses for me a key aspect of the hermeneutics of prayer:

For God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be greatly shaken. (BCP 669, Psalm 62:1-2)

Works Cited

The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church (BCP). New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1986.

Briggs, Sheila. “The Letter of Paul to the Galatians.” NRSV, The New Testament 309-327.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Tr. Garrett Barden and John Cumming. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

Martin, Dale B. “Social-Scientific Criticism.” To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, eds. Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.125-141.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (NRSV). Ed. Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Palmer, Richard E. Hermeneutics. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969.

Ricoeur, Paul. Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, Ed., trans., intro., John B. Thompson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981. 43-100.

Segovia, Fernando F. “Reading the Bible Ideologically: Socioeconomic Criticism.” To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, eds. Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999. 283-306.


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