My brother, Simon, is a year-and-a-half younger than me and, like me, had a happy Christian upbringing. Through his teens he was fully immersed in our church youth group, (which included being literally fully immersed when he was baptised at 16), played bass in the worship band, and went to Soul Survivor every year. In his gap year before university he went on a mission trip to Nigeria with the Christian charity, Tearfund.
We, along with our parents, have since been through a dramatic deconstruction of our faith. A decade on, I have reconstructed enough that I am still calling myself a Christian, although this has a very different meaning to me now. My brother now calls himself an “atheist verging on anti-theist” (meaning not only that he believes God doesn’t exist, but also that religion and belief in God actually have a harmful effect on the world).
This makes for some pretty mind-boggling family discussions, particularly as we usually somehow end up agreeing on most things.
The following conversation about homosexuality and the Bible took place a few months ago when Simon commented on my post, ‘I Think God Makes People Gay (Part 3): The Way Forward’.
I found it pretty interesting, I hope you do too. Feel free to chip in with your own comments.
Hey Sis, apologies but I have just got around to reading your post and I have a bone to pick with all this.
Whilst I admire greatly your attempts to interpret the bible in such a way that conforms and supports your rightly liberal and inclusive beliefs, I just can’t help thinking whilst reading this that you are trying to carve and mould the bible round your own beliefs, rather than as you say, genuinely following the teaching that is within. It appears to me as an outsider, that you and others are desperately trying to modernise the bible to catch up with modern progressive thought, but I struggle to see it as being as malleable as you do.
From my point of view, the bible is a text which overtly condemns homosexuality in a number of places and there’s no way of getting round that! This is alongside the passages condoning slavery, mysogeny, violence and other less-than-humanistic activities.
History is unfortunately on my side: since the adoption of Christianity by the ageing Roman Empire in the 4th century, up until the 1960s (in the UK at least) being gay has been outlawed, punishable for most of that time, by death (burned alive in public being a favoured punishment by early Christian Roman leaders). Prior to the Christianisation of Europe, homosexuality was almost completely accepted and widespread, there are many examples of gay leaders (Alexander the Great being the most famous) and great artists across the Hellenistic world and Roman world.
In short, being gay only became a crime because of Christianity, was a sin punishable by death for over 1500 years, and only became legal because of the rise of modern, secular liberalism (the Catholics are still largely against equal rights for homosexuals, but luckily our secular leaders couldn’t give a crap what the Pope thinks).
So why did God let this happen? Surely if he thought that being gay was alright, why did he allow it to be written in his book, quite explicitly, that it wasn’t? If he genuinely cared for all his children, then why not interfere in some way, rather than let (probably millions of) people over 1500 years suffer, get repressed and sometimes get killed for it?
Sorry, but from my point of view it’s impossible to reconcile this, and Christianity takes most of the blame for anti-gay sentiment across the world today. I truly do admire your attempts to be inclusive, but since the bible isn’t ever going to change, these passages will never disappear, and people are always going to read them and interpret them.
If you want absolute equality, inclusivity and compassion, which you evidently do, I believe the only way forward is modern, secular, rationalism. The church has always been behind in progressive thought (Quakers notwithstanding) so I think it always will be (if you don’t believe me, ask the pope what he thinks of homosexuality, women’s rights to be in positions of power in the church, and contraceptives!).
Hey bro! You’re so right, and yet I still don’t end up at the same conclusion as you.
You are approaching the Bible in the same problematic way as many Christians still do: that is to assume it is God’s word written directly to us, an instruction manual for life. I don’t think that’s what it was ever meant to be, and this is where I part ways with many evangelicals.
I see the Bible more as a family history, a library of stories, poetry, folklore, eyewitness accounts. It was written by people over a period of thousands of years, telling of their experiences of God. The writings all reflect the cultures they are from, so of course we now see much of it as backwards and even barbaric. But the overarching theme is God pulling people forwards into greater ways of being human, step by step becoming more loving, more inclusive, more equal, and with a more expansive worldview.
Am I throwing the Bible out? As a rule book from God’s lips to my life – yes. But as a story of God relating to humanity it is infinitely fascinating and useful. This is scary for Christians because it opens up the possibility for change, development beyond the words of the Bible. I think God is revealed in the Bible, and speaks to people today through it, but is not confined to the Bible. And I totally think the Bible gets it wrong sometimes – it was written by people after all.
I think the pattern of ever expanding love, peace and unity was meant to continue, evolving with culture. And I think the literal reading of the Bible is another example of people trying to put God in a cage.
OK so we can both agree that we can dismiss the bible as fallible, partly fictional and in no way the direct voice of a divine being, that’s good!
Your explanation doesn’t really answer my fundamental problem with your assertion that god, if real, cares about people who are gay, or if he is, that he is capable of any intervention in human affairs. Simple question: if being gay is OK with god, why did he let all of Jesus’ followers, all following his teaching, oppress gay people for almost the entire history of Christianity? Why only now is he telling a select few that actually, it’s OK?
To me this can only be resolved by one of three premises:
1) God does not exist and therefore things happen through natural means
2) God does exist and cares about what humans are doing, but is incapable, weak or impotent and is not able to intervene (thus begging the question – what is he for?), or
3) God does exist and can intervene, but is the unpleasant, vengeful, spiteful god of the old testament who doesn’t like gay people and wants them to be punished.
Regardless of the reliability of the bible, there’s no way I could ever respect a being that allows so much suffering in his name, yet does nothing.
Variations on this problem are the main reason why I am an atheist verging on anti-theist.
I’d say this is exactly the right response to the claims of Christianity as we were both taught it. You are among many, many people (myself included) for whom the language, concepts and interpretations handed to us from the church simply don’t work anymore. We’ve both had this deconstruction experience; as a result you have embraced humanism and abandoned any sort of faith, and I clung to the few parts of Christianity that still made sense to me, dismantling many unhelpful constructs and worldviews and then reconstructing to the point where I now have a strong and vibrant faith which doesn’t crumble so easily when faced with tough questions.
So your first question: “If being gay is OK with god, why did he let all of Jesus’ followers, all following his teaching, oppress gay people for almost the entire history of Christianity? Why only now is he telling a select few that actually, it’s OK?”
Well, quite. An excellent question, and you can ask the same for all the other horrible things Christians have done and continue to do, using the Bible to justify their actions. To put it simply, I don’t think Christians own God. I think many people who call themselves Christians are not following Jesus, in fact they are often working against him. So equally I think you can be following the way of Jesus, being inspired and led by the spirit of God, whilst not calling yourself a Christian or in fact knowing anything about Jesus. So in the case of the oppression of gay people, I see God at work in the growing acceptance and love despite Christians working against it. The Bible has of course contributed massively to homophobia, but I’m not convinced that it wouldn’t have occurred anyway. God’s spirit has pulled us a long, long way since Biblical times, the problem has been with people clinging to a few culturally-soaked verses as timeless laws to be enforced, and in the process missing the larger point (and crushing people).
The second massive point is about how we see God. In Biblical times as you will know people saw the universe as three-tiered – heaven was literally above the Earth and that is where God lived, and the “underworld” was the place of death and darkness. So all throughout the Bible this is reflected in language – Jesus coming down from heaven, going down to the depths…etc. etc. Even though we now obviously know that is not how things are, we still very often have a view of God which comes from this “three-tiered” worldview. God is up there, we are down here, God sometimes pokes his finger down and intervenes. This understanding raises a ton of difficult questions, one of which you have raised here: if God is good, why doesn’t he intervene and stop bad things happening in his name?
Of course I don’t actually know the answer to this. But I don’t think of God that way anymore. I see God as the breath within us – the life force that creates, sustains, inspires. Language fails of course, but this language works better than a lot of the churchy language I grew up with. Many people have a sense that there must be something more to life – there is some deeper meaning and significance – I call that God. So I agree that things happen by natural means, but I think God is the energy behind it all.
So how do I know this ‘God’ is a conscious, personal being, let alone good? Well I don’t know, but personally when I choose to believe that reality is fundamentally good, that every human being contains a divine ‘spark’ and has infinite worth, and that we are part of a bigger, greater story, life just makes so much more sense. Things click into place and I feel a real sense of peace.
And if you read the Bible without trying to interpret it literally and thus losing the whole point of it, it becomes fascinating and really compelling. Historically the Jesus story is pretty hard to deny – based on the evidence it’s actually quite likely that he lived, died and was raised from the dead – it’s just that believing that has pretty massive implications.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s not a silly thing to believe. The major themes in the Bible (that we largely miss when treating it as a scientific textbook) are things like challenging domination and power structures which oppress people, working against injustice and inequality, non-violence, working towards peace and unity…the Bible is full of stories of God turning upside-down people’s understanding of how things are and showing them a better way. Which makes it massively relevant today.