Thursday, February 19, 2009

One Funny Turn of Phrase

... in a discussion that doesn't provoke many chuckles.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has released its long-time-coming proposed social statement on human sexuality, along with recommendations for action by the Churchwide Assembly.  Cutting to the chase, one of the recommendations is that the ELCA change its rules to officially permit people living in same-sex relationships to serve as pastors.

We haven't read the documents, and aren't sure we will post much on the subject once we do.  There will be a lot of shrieking between now and Churchwide, and shrieking tires us out these days.

Most readers have a pretty fair idea of where the Egg stands on these questions, although few are likely to understand our reasoning.  Someday, when we come out of the closet, as it were, and write a longish paper o the subject, we expect to shock a great many people.  Here's why:  We feel that most of the theological writing we have seen on sex and marriage is strangely ahistorical, and therefore deeply suspect.  Protestants -- and, astonishingly, even many Roman Catholics -- seem to take for granted what can be described crudely as a "sex-positive" position.  The only differences are between those who believe that this positivity extends to gay people and those who do not.  

From the perspective of patristics (and, we believe, the New Testament), this is barely a meaningful difference.  The questions which -- ahem! -- aroused the Fathers were more basic:  Shall Christians marry or copulate at all, and if so why?  The argument most familiar to modern people, that God created human beings male and female and established marriage as a reflection of that creation, was maintained by Jovinian.  It was attacked and demolished twice, by two of the most estimable Fathers, Jerome and Augustine.  Jerome argued that marriage was in fact evil, if of a minor and even necessary kind; Augustine (with Ambrose) that it was good, but again of a lesser kind.  These views established the theological orthodoxy of the following millennium.  Jovinian is classed as a heretic, although in fairness we don't believe he was ever anathematized before Trent.

Anyhoo, you can see where we're going with this, which is to argue that rooting Christian marriage in the doctrine of Creation, although a seemingly logical move, is one that historic Christianity has long rejected.  Christian marriages (as distinct from pagan, civil or common-law unions, for for that matter from hooking up on a Friday night) have been held to serve other purposes. What purposes?  Come on, people, we said we'd deal with it all another time.

Here's the point to this post:  coverage of the ELCA's new statement by the Grand Forks (SD)  Herald, linked above, includes this bit of trivia: 

The greater Red River Valley region is the most ELCA-prone in the country: about 27 percent of the population belongs to the ELCA.

Hmm.  ELCA-prone?  The phrase taunts us.  It sounds so much like "accident-prone," as though the valley in question were a sort of ecclesiastical Gerald Ford.  Or perhaps it is a little swipe at areas of the country in which Lutherans make up a smaller portion of the populace.  Is New York, for example, "ELCA-supine"?  It does feel that way sometimes.

Or maybe, deep in the phrase, is a grammatically garbled reference to one of the lesser-known liturgical offices, a medieval service of preaching outside the Mass which was called "Prone."  Has it caught on in South Dakota, and should the rest of us listen up?

Anyway, that's all we meant to say in this post, the part about ELCA-proneness.  Please disregard all the scary stuff above it, about how Jesus may not agree with you -- whoever you are -- on the definition of marriage.


mark said...

Talk about garbled! Kind of reminds me of experiments when I was a kid of trying to talk to other people while holding one's breath underwater . . .

Pastor Joelle said...

Some of the old German Lutheran parishes I served remembered the practice years ago of people coming to the parsonage to "announce" to the pastor that they planned to commune. This was back when communion was 4 times a year...and maybe discouraged people from communing.

But I see some real potential in people being able to knock on the pastor's door, come in and tell them how it is going in their lives-an opportunity for confession.

It's so difficult with busy schedules and people being reluctant to let you their homes anymore...what a great idea to have the parsonage open for a few hours on a Saturday for people to come to the Pastor.

I may do that next Lent. I don't think I could get the placed cleaned up in time to do it this year...

Pastor Joelle said...

Sorry I meant to comment on your Confession post and I think I left it here...

Pastor Joelle said...

Okay - now this comment IS about this psot...

I would be interested to hear you talk more on this subject of "Sex postive" and the early church's obsession with celibacy.

I find arguments like Robert Gagnon's, which seems to locate the whole of salvation in the sex act between a man and a woman rather bizarre, considering how dubiously the early church regarded sex.

I almost launched into a long thing about my interest in early female martyrs and how this relates...but maybe I should just write about it in my own blog...when I figure out for sure where I'm going with it.

Father said...

The key concept there is "how dubiously the early church regarded sex." It really, really did, despite the fact that Christians went on having it.

Since the Reformation (noster culpa!), Christianity has moved away from that dubious regard, toward a general sense that God must have wanted it this way because, after all, God *made* it this way. And since the 19th Century, anybody who suggests that sex -- including married sex -- may have a morally questionable side has been labeled a prude or a pathological case.

The problem is that the Fathers weren't idiots. They understood the whole creation idea. But they also understood the corruption of human will in a way that moderns are nervous about.

Augustine, obviously, is the team-leader on this stuff. For him, sexual desire and sexual passion are dangerous because, when people corrupted by the Fall experience them, those people lose their rational powers, such as the ability to think seriously about God, or even about basic morality. Therefore, concupiscence is for him a test-case in human moral failure.

(And, no matter what anybody says, he had a case. Even granting arguments for its right use, I don't see how anybody could deny that sexuality is the most-wrongly-used of all God's gifts. Think "rape as a weapon of war.")

Sadly, Augustine's complex philosophical investigation of human nature has, over the years, been dumbed down to something on the order of "the Fall is actually a metaphor for sex" and so forth, which leads to a kind of over-the-top sex-negative position. Whence the scary levels of prudery and shame we have all seen the Church hand out over the years. Nobody wants to go back there, but I don't think we have to. What we *can* do is have a discussion of human sexuality that doesn't start from the assumption that God does want straight married people to have all the sex they want, while everybody else abstains.

So the problem for us as pastors and theologians is, first, to rediscover a way of thinking that has nearly vanished from modern theology, and second, to talk about it in ways that don't make us sound like diseased creeps.

Pastor Joelle said...

I think you may be on to something but I think you are swimming upstream.

I believe for women in the early church chastity and celibacy were freeing concepts - because as slaves and wives they had no choice as to who had access to their bodies. I think they may have been on to something as "free love" of the 70s didn't turn out to be so freeing for women.

Father said...

"Swimming upstream" doesn't begin to say it. But you know what they say about lost causes.

You're right about chastity and celibacy in the early church; if I'm not mistaken, there's been some solid writing on that over the years. To me, it comes out most clearly in all those stories about women who stop having sex with their husbands -- sometimes by mutual agreement, other times leading to their martyrdom.

Or in the apocryphal story of St. Thecla, who leaves her husband to be a fellow-evangelist with Paul. This is incomprehensible to the "family values" crowd, which -- and here's part of what I'm getting at -- simply has no frame of reference for Jesus breaking up a family. It's just further proof of how alien the early church's thinking about marriage is from anything going on today.