Homosexuality and shalom

Posted: April 16, 2013 by J in Bible, Church, Pastoral issues, Theology
Tags: ,

Well, I’ve been pretty clear on what I hate about our current approach to the homosexual issue. What do I have to offer in its place?

What I think this debate has seriously lacked is theology. It needs a big injection. Let’s have a go now.

When we talk to people about how life should be, about what human relationships should be like, about ethics, in other words, it’s vital that we give the message that we actually care about the good. Not just the right: the good. We want people to hear us saying we care about their wellbeing and prosperity. We have a heart for the wellbeing of all people everywhere. Whatever the details of our position, we want them to know we’re starting from that place. In other words, our ethics is grounded in love.

Luckily, the Bible starts at the same place. God creates us in relationships and blesses us. I.e. he creates us for blessedness, and sets up the world to enable that. God wants to see us prosper and enjoy the good. This is ultimately symbolised in the Sabbath day, which functions like the goal of the creation process. God does not create a neutral world, but a good one. The creation is in line with his will and purposes from the beginning, and so he is very pleased with it. We could say that the world has a moral value or character.

Not only is the creation good, it is connected. The good of everything is interconnected with the good of everything else. Human society’s prosperity is not independent of the good of the animal kingdom or of the vegetable. These are not competing spheres, not separate, but interdependent. That’s how the world is structured. ‘The good’ is not an abstract category, but is grounded in the reality of the creation. It arises from the nature of things. Blessedness, then, is a matter of taking our right place in the web of relationships that God has made.

A word later used to sum up this condition of living in line with the nature of things, of enjoying wellbeing and blessedness, is the word shalom. Often translated ‘peace’, the word really has the broadest possible reference. To say something is ‘right’ or to say that it brings shalom are two ways of expressing the same thing. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ really mean ‘what makes for shalom’ and ‘what destroys it.’ Right and wrong, then, are not abstract ideals. They are functional categories, about what works and what doesn’t work, what lines up and what doesn’t line up, with the creation God has made and the plans he has for it.

From the beginning, God tells us some of what is involved in prospering in the good world he has made. He tells us about how things are, and how to live in line with that reality so as to prosper. He gives us what the Bible calls wisdom. Wisdom is not something different from ethics: it is the driving force of ethics, it is having “faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrew 5:14). In the bible, wisdom is morality.

In this story, things that are wrong are not wrong because they break the rules in the book. Rather, the rules that are there are there because those things are wrong. The rules inform us what kind of world God has made for us. They tell us which sort of behaviour lines up with the rightness of things, and which sort doesn’t. As we better understand the nature of things, we gain the wisdom to live so as to enjoy shalom.

This view of ethics, of course, makes it open to investigation and study. People can learn about what ‘works’ by the method we call ‘the hard way’: learning from mistakes. Children brought up on a constant diet of TV do not prosper. This can be demonstrated, and so we can learn not to treat children in this way. It is ‘wrong’: it doesn’t line up with the nature of things, so it does not produce ‘the good’ for children. An arrogant, insulting manner makes for bad relationships, and so we can recognise it is unwise. We do not need all our ethics to be divinely revealed. Wisdom is something we anyone can acquire to some extent by thoughtful reflection on life’s experiences. Ethics is an area which has room for discussion and debate and disagreement.

This gives us a great deal of common ground in talking ethics with non-Christian people. If we begin our ethics with a statement of the authority of Scripture, we place an impassable obstacle in the way of ethical discussion with non-believers. We shut it down before it’s started. But if we are able to talk, as the Bible talks, about the way things are, then there is much to talk about together. And best of all, we will have moved from discussing the form of our ethics (the Bible), to its content (the reality of the good world we live in).

Ok, I know we haven’t got to homosexuality. But we’re getting there. Tomorrow.

  1. Alan Wood says:

    Of course (to jump ahead) if you want to start with ‘homosexuality is wrong and that’s just *the way things are*,’ you get homophobes nodding along straight away. I think at some level I don’t want to own the harshness of that statement (and those allies), so I’d deflect blame to the Bible.

    Another reason to hew to the Bible is the difficulty of arguing from wisdom. The data (on mental and physical health, length of relationships, stability of society and potential for abuse or other harm, or whatever the basis is for saying homosexuality is doubleplus ungood), are mixed and unclear. They are open to the subjective interpretation of the researcher (and so religiously motivated studies get ignored in the argument, because they would say that, wouldn’t they). It’s easier, at one level, to just pull out Leviticus and Romans as your ‘talking points’.

    Those are bad reasons – cowardice and sloth. But there’s faithfulness too. At some point, even if you’re struggling to argue from the love and wisdom space, as a faithful Christian you’ll need to testify that your observation and reflection is shaped by Scripture – that *God tells us about right and wrong*, for our good. Was it Hooker who talked about ‘right reason’ being that which is redeemed and reformed by God?

    None of this detracts from what you say. I’m just saying, the common mistake is easy to make, and not just because it’s hard to remember to attack the premises of the question. It’s common because it’s easy.

    BTW Jonathan, have you read Andrew Cameron’s old piece from RTR on ‘saying Yes to the world’?

    • Jonathan says:

      as a faithful Christian you’ll need to testify that your observation and reflection is shaped by Scripture – that *God tells us about right and wrong*, for our good.

      Agreed, Alan. In fact this whole approach to ethics is derived from Scripture, no good in hiding that! It’s just that we’re treating it as a story we tell rather than a rule-book we quote. And therein lies all the difference in the world!

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