For the Spirit Tells Me So
When I was coming to terms with being gay, one of the obstacles that I had to deal with is the role of Scripture in my life and how it squared or didn’t square with my sexuality. I remember reading the book Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? and being shown the story in Acts 10 about Peter meeting the Gentile Corneilus. Peter had a hard time coming to terms that a Gentile should receive the same message he had received as a Jew. Peter had some understanding of Jewish law and he knew that Gentiles weren’t welcome.
None of this made sense to Peter, so he went up to the roof to sort things out. It was there he fell into a trance and saw a sheet being brought down from heaven. He was told by a voice to eat the animals found on the sheet. Peter, a good Jew, knew some of those animals weren’t kosher. He refused, but the voice comes back and says what God has made no one should call unclean.
Peter goes to meet Corneilus and tells him the good news of Jesus. It was then that the Spirit was poured out among the Gentiles gathered and Peter asks, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?”
Scripture is not something we should ignore as Christians. It is definitely a way we learn about who God is and our place in God’s world. But what about experience? Can God speak through our own lives as well. Can God be doing a new thing in the lives of others?
Catholic scholar Luke Timothy Johnson writes about how Scripture is not the only way that one can look to authority when it comes to dealing with issues like homosexuality. He notes how Americans changed their minds radically about slavery in hearing stories about slaves in the American south:
Our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. During the 1850s, arguments raged over the morality of slave-holding, and the exegesis of Scripture played a key role in those debates. The exegetical battles were one-sided: all abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments, which gave every indication that slaveholding was a legitimate, indeed God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised a fundamental objection. So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong?The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience—through personal testimony and direct personal contact, through fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, of course, through a great Civil War in which ghastly numbers of people gave their lives so that slaves could be seen not as property but as persons. As persons, they could be treated by the same law of love that governed relations among all Christians, and could therefore eventually also realize full civil rights within society. And once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.
Johnson then goes to the book of Acts to see how the early church dealt with accepting Gentiles:
I refer to the account of the Acts of the Apostles (chapters 10–15) concerning the church’s decision to include Gentiles in the church without requiring them to be circumcised or to observe the Mosaic law. Luke’s narrative shows how God moved ahead of the human characters in accepting Gentiles as righteous, and how difficult it was for the church’s leaders to learn what God was up to. It shows, however, that Peter and Paul and James were open to the truth God wanted them to learn. They paid attention to human narratives—testimonies—that spoke of God at work among Gentiles in ways that not even Jewish believers in a crucified messiah could appreciate. The apostles had to be shown how the same Holy Spirit who had come upon them also came to those very unlike them, people whom they regarded as unclean by nature and evil in their practices. When shown the evidence of transformed lives, they saw and accepted what God was doing.Accepting Gentiles as beloved of God was, to be sure, but one step, however dramatic and difficult. Harder still was finding a way for Jews and Gentiles to live together, sharing table fellowship in a world that took the body symbolism of eating at least as seriously as that of sex. Compromises on both sides were required for the church to remain united despite such important differences (Acts 15:20–21). Acts provides an example for us of the church discerning God’s activity in human lives, being obedient in faith to God’s self-disclosure in such stories, and then reinterpreting Scripture in light of the experience of God.I suggest, therefore, that the New Testament provides impressive support for our reliance on the experience of God in human lives—not in its commands, but in its narratives and in the very process by which it came into existence. In what way are we to take seriously the authority of Scripture? What I find most important of all is not the authority found in specific commands, which are fallible, conflicting, and often culturally conditioned, but rather the way Scripture creates the mind of Christ in its readers, authorizing them to reinterpret written texts in light of God’s Holy Spirit active in human lives. When read within the perspective of a Scripture that speaks everywhere of a God disclosing Godself through human experience, our stories become the medium of God’s very revelation.
Some of my favorite bloggers especially when it comes to politics tend to also be social conservatives. Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat have made worthwhile defenses in what they believe is the traditional church understanding on same sex marriage. (Worthwhile in the sense that they were thoughtful responses even if I don’t agree with them.) Both writers tend to make an appeal Scripture and tradition on this matter, two areas where there seems to be a strike against same sex marriage if homosexuality in general.
But experience matters as well. Not in the sense in legitimizing whatever we do in our lives, but in seeing how God might be speaking in the lived lives of people, like Corneilus and seeing where God shows up.
Experience can be faulty, but so can Scripture and Tradition. We live in an imperfect world with imperfect ways of understanding God. But God is not simply found in the pages of the Bible or in the traditions of the church. God is living and breathing in the world and we have to have the eyes to see and the hearts to believe.