A Biblical Case for the Support of Same-Sex Marriage

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This guest post was written by Katie van Santen


One of two statements is often heard in regards to an individual’s position on same-sex attraction, which can be paraphrased as:

“I take the ‘traditional’ view because I believe what’s in the Bible”

or

“I take the ‘reformed’ view because of a family member or friend”.

However, both views have the support of biblical interpretation. Those taking the ‘reformed’ view do not reject biblical authority, but have a different interpretation of the texts to those who take the ‘traditional’ view.

Sometimes the context of a passage means the ‘surface’ or literal reading is the least important in terms of truth about God and our relationship with Him. Scripture is authoritative because it is the Word of God, and we must seek what God says through the Bible, rather than what the Bible says: ‘the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6).


History

Views on marriage have changed dramatically over time, and our perception of ‘biblical’ marriage is very different to that of the Israelites or first-century Jews. Only relatively recently have we begun to understand the biology, psychology and sociology that underpins the human condition. The definition of ‘traditional, biblical’ marriage as ‘a covenant between one man and one woman for life’ also raises questions regarding the changing attitudes to divorce and remarriage, which won’t be covered further here.

For most of history women were property (Exodus 20:17). The purpose of marriage was to produce legitimate heirs to inherit without dispute. In Hebrew culture, marriages were arranged by the fathers and were purely civil, with no religious ceremony. Often while still children, a bride-price was agreed, a contract was signed, and the couple were betrothed. The bride remained in her father’s house. Once the couple were both old enough, and the money had been saved, a date for the wedding was set. The groom and companions came to the bride’s home, paid the bride-price, and the marriage was consummated. Thus, Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5, Ephesians 5:31: ‘a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’. The whole wedding party then processed to the groom’s house for the wedding feast, where the bride remained in her husband’s house. The Bible is unclear as to what defines marriage: in the Old Testament wives and concubines held different status, yet Jesus says that once two become ‘one flesh’ God has joined them together (Matthew 19:5-6), and Paul (1 Corinthians 6:15-16) uses the same ‘one flesh’ language for sex with a prostitute as for marriage.

Priests only became involved in Christian marriages the 12th Century and it became a sacrament of the church in the 16th Century. The Reformers declared that marriage was purely secular. The Book of Common Prayer (1662) lists the purpose of marriage as “the procreation of children; a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; and the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other” without reference to love. The idea of romantic attraction and personal choice of partner were raised in the Enlightenment and popularised only by the Victorians. The Old Testament permitted polygamy (Deuteronomy 21:16-17), handmaids (Genesis 16:1-4) and concubines (Genesis 22:24), along with slavery; women had to marry their rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). There are still Christians who believe that 1 Corinthians 7:4 and Ephesians 5:23 permits marital rape as an outworking of the husband’s authority.

Sexuality is a term created by psychologists in the late 19th century. Prior to that there was no concept of sexual orientation, only heterosexual and homosexual practices. From the 14th Century, a ‘sodomite’ was one who performed the act of ‘sodomy’ (anal sex with the same or opposite sex). Therefore there is no concept of our modern understanding of homosexuality in the Bible, nor of monogamous homosexual relationships; the term “homosexuality” was first used in a biblical translation in 1946. As marriage was for procreation and property, there could be no concept of same-sexual marriage until the recent changes in attitudes towards love, women and legitimacy. That there are no examples in the Bible doesn’t stop us driving cars, using plastic, and eating chocolate.

Therefore our ‘traditional’ and ‘biblical’ understanding of marriage, and our ‘traditional’ position on monogamous same-sex relationships has very little historical basis.


Scripture

There are few mentions of homosexual activity in the bible. Those that are presented as condemning homosexuality are discussed here with contextual and cultural background that point to a different interpretation.

Genesis 19:1-10

Gang rape has nothing to do with homosexuality. It is an act of power and violence. In the similar story of Judges 19:22-26, the men were satisfied to rape a woman instead of the man they asked for. In addition to inhospitality, Ezekiel 16:49 says that the sin of Sodom was arrogance, greed, neglect of the poor and needy, and pride.

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

Some Levitical laws make sense to us today, clearly intending to keep the population healthy and free from disease (i.e. blood, mildew, pork). Other laws were for ritual purity, setting Israel apart from the surrounding nations (Leviticus 18:1-5, 20:23-24). Some we accept as still being ‘applicable’ (murder, theft, incest) while others we have allowed to be ‘of their time’ (cloth made of two fibres, shellfish, sideburns). Some authors put these verses into a temple-prostitution context: the Hebrew tow’ebah elsewhere means ritual impurity and idolatry. Adrian Thatcher (2011) suggests that, in the context of the patriarchal society, it is the phrase ‘as a woman’ that is most informative: treating a man as a woman, therefore degrading his status to that of property, is the catastrophic transgression.

Romans 1:26-27

Paul was writing to Christians in Rome, a place that worshipped a pantheon of gods, including acts of both male and female temple prostitution to confer favourable fertility. Paul condemns men and women who glorify false gods and give up their ‘natural relations’ for shameful acts ‘inflamed with lust’: idolatry, promiscuity, and temple prostitution for self-seeking ends are Paul’s target. If these men and women gave up their ‘natural’ desires they were not, by our current understanding, homosexual.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10

The NIVUK (2011) translates 1 Corinthians 6 as “nor men who have sex with men… will inherit the kingdom of God” with a footnote referencing two Greek terms meaning “the passive and active participants in homosexual acts”. The terms are malakos and arsenokoites. The latter of these also appears in 1 Timothy 1.

Malakos appears four times in the New Testament, of which three are translated as ‘soft’ in relation to fine clothing (Matthew 11:8; Like 7:25). In other Greek texts it is used to mean metaphorically ‘soft’, i.e. spineless in the face of injustice, or lacking self-control, rather than effeminate or homosexual.

Arsenokoites appears only in these two passages. In other Greek literature it references exploitation and abuse of the poor. In 1 Timothy 1 it is sandwiched between pornos, a male/boy prostitute, and andrapodistes, a slave dealer. Therefore arsenokoites (literally ‘male-bedder’) appears in the context of abuses of power rather than a loving, monogamous homosexual relationship. Many believe it refers to ‘pederasty’ – the normal Greek and Roman practice of an older man having a sexual relationship with a younger man or boy, slave, or social inferior, in addition to his wife and/or male and female prostitutes.

Without support from these six scriptures, there is nothing biblically that condemns monogamous homosexual relationships. In the context of the Bible as a whole, these passages are better interpreted as speaking against social injustice, exploitation of power, and idolatry for one’s own gain. Scripture also tells us that it is ‘not good for [a hu]man to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18), that not all are called to singleness (1 Corinthians 7:9), and that a tree is recognised by its fruit (Luke 6:43-44). 


Celebrating Diversity

Humanity, in its collective entirety, was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27: in the image of God… he created them). God is not gendered or sexual. In the second account of creation (Genesis 2:4ff) God made Adam (2:7), and later Eve (2:21). There is no record of any in-between, yet Jesus mentions eunuchs that were ‘born that way’ (Matthew 19:12). There are individuals who are born with ambiguous anatomy, mono- or poly-sex chromosomes, excess or deficiency in hormone production and/or hormone receptors. Anatomical and hormonal changes can also be acquired. There is a spectrum in sexual desire from asexual to hypersexual, and in sexual attraction from heterosexual through bisexual to homosexual. There is diversity in human biology and sexuality beyond the simple ‘male’ and ‘female’ dichotomy.

Creation is full of glorious diversity and God saw that creation was ‘very good’. Yet we inconsistently label some of this diversity as ‘good’ and some a ‘result of the fall’. This means that questions of affirming LBGTQ+ identity also must extend to other aspects of diversity: how we treat people based on their race, gender, ethnicity, ability, class, age, wealth, size, health, as well as sexuality. The primary ‘label’ of a human is just that: a human, a person, a child of God. All other aspects of their identity are secondary to the core that they are created loved and lovable.

Over history the Church (as a whole) has acted, in its well-intentioned desire to authentically follow Jesus, to make individuals feel that they are unworthy of love because of their identity. The Church took a ‘biblical’ position on slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, and the inferiority of women until reason and experience prevailed. Then a fresh understanding of the context of the supporting texts allowed reinterpretation of the Bible and consequentially a changed belief.

Dr David Gushee reminds us: “We must cling to Jesus’ example and the way he conducted his ministry… If we do we might notice his warnings about religious self-righteousness and contempt for others deemed to be sinners; his embrace of outcasts and marginalized people; his attacks on those religious leader types who block access to God’s grace…; and perhaps above all his death on the cross for the sins of all of us, beginning with each of us as “chief of sinners.” We must focus tightly on Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. 


Sources/Further reading

Rev KV Alias on biblical marriage
Rev Lindsay Louise Biddle on homosexuality in the Bible
Rev Justin Canon on homosexuality in the Bible
Rev Justin Gau on Kingdom Values: Mercy
Dr David Gushee on LGBT in church
Justin Lee on homosexuality in the Bible
Adam Philips on homosexuality in the Bible
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Homosexuality
Prof Adrian Thatcher on LGBT inclusion (pdf)
Prof Adrian Thatcher on biblical interpretation (pdf)
Prof Adrian Thatcher (2011) God, Sex and Gender: An Introduction (Wiley Blackwell)


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Katie van Santen lives in Plymouth with some lego and quite a few books. She has just completed her Certificate of Higher Education in Theology, Ministry and Mission. Currently she is not a marine biologist or science teacher due to disability, but keeps herself busy as a volunteer aquarium host, visiting preacher, and Fairy Godmother.


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Faith in the Fog: Love as our Compass

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This is Part 4 of my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

< Part 3: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible


Deconstruction‘ is a bit of a buzzword at the moment in some Christian circles. For various reasons, many of us have found ourselves dismantling our belief systems and questioning long-held assumptions.

For some people, the deconstruction experience can be overwhelmingly positive and freeing. They are able to see things from refreshing new perspectives and discard aspects of their belief system that were oppressive or harmful.

For others, faith deconstruction can be like losing a parent. Utterly devastating and disorientating.

My experience has been a bit of both. Sometimes, deconstructing feels great. It feels like I’m standing on the edge of a whole new world of possibilities. My faith is renewed and I am filled with hope, content to revel in the mystery and wonder of it all.

Other times I feel like I’m stumbling around in a dense fog, desperately grasping for something to help me find my way, something to give meaning and assurance. (I plan to address the emotional and mental health issues surrounding faith deconstruction later in this series.)

I used to find meaning and assurance in my firm beliefs, based on the solid foundation of the Bible. My belief system was the anchor of my faith, and offered a neat, static framework within which to understand the world.

As my belief system crumbled and my view of the Bible changed, I was left searching for something to anchor my faith to. I had to be sure about something, or what was the point? How could I call myself a Christian if I wasn’t sure what I believed?


Love is all you need

I know, it’s the ultimate cliché.

It took me a long time to come to terms with this, but for me, right now, love is what it’s all about. It’s the whole point.

You see, my faith deconstruction has gradually revealed to me how little we can ever really know. Any ideas or theories we have about God and the meaning of existence are bound to be hopelessly inadequate. And you know what? That’s OK. I don’t think we are supposed to have an intellectual grasp on those sorts of things, they go beyond intellect and reason.

I still have beliefs and hopes about things like Jesus and the Holy Spirit and prayer and the Kingdom of God. But they are no longer set in stone.

I have stopped searching for an anchor; a solid, static set of beliefs I can cling to. Instead, love is my compass and my guiding light for life, here and now. That’s the foundation on which I’m reconstructing my faith. My beliefs will probably change, but love remains.


Love is not the easy option

The conservative evangelical voice in my head still occasionally wonders if this is wishful thinking. An attempt to soften the Truth, to make it all sound nicer and more palatable.

It sounds suspiciously like wishy-washy, fluffy, hippy nonsense doesn’t it?

Well, that depends on how you define love. The Biblical accounts of the life and death of Jesus are still, for me, the ultimate definition of love.

Sacrificial. Radically inclusive. Painful. Dirty.

Real love can bring life in all its fullness, but it is far from easy.

You know what is easy? Signing a doctrinal statement to show that you’re a real Christian. Asserting an intellectual belief in a particular theory of the afterlife. Those things aren’t exactly difficult.

But reorienting your entire life towards radical, sacrificial, Earth-transforming love – now that takes some commitment.


Christ is bigger than Christianity

Jesus demonstrated a radical way of being in the world that undermined and transcended the human need for separation, hierarchy and systems of control.

I can choose to see Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God, whilst acknowledging that the power and influence of his message is not limited to those who adhere to the Christian religion.

Of course we naturally want to create “in groups”. Of course we think everyone would be better off if they were like us. That’s human nature. The human nature that Jesus and the New Testament writers challenged relentlessly.


Why bother with religion at all?

I think that some people reach a point where the healthiest and most life-giving thing to do is to disassociate themselves from religion and faith altogether, at least for a time.

Religion can be toxic. And to be honest, it seems to me that humanists are often far more on Jesus’ wavelength than many Christians.

But. 

I don’t entirely buy the atheist argument that we don’t need God to be moral. I’m sure biology, sociology, psychology and neuroscience have a lot to say about how we have evolved to live in relationship and, in general day-to-day life, refrain from killing one another.

But I don’t believe that the kind of love demonstrated by Jesus comes naturally. Love our enemies? That goes completely against our human instincts, our ‘worldly wisdom’, and when truly lived out, can have life-transforming and world-changing effects. It interrupts the status quo and creates something entirely new.


Following Jesus was never supposed to be about having a static set of beliefs.

To have faith in Jesus is to embrace a new way of being in the world; a way of upside-down priorities, counter-cultural inclusion, radical forgiveness and ultimate sacrifice.

And the best word we have for that is love.


Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)


I have lots more to say. Subscribe via email to receive updates when I publish posts.

If you want to get in touch and share your own thoughts or experiences you can leave comments, find me on Facebook or Twitter or email musicineverysound@gmail.com.

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Love, Love, Love: the painfully misunderstood, profoundly simple, earth-shattering message of Jesus

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Faith in the Fog: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible

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This is Part 3 of my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

< Part 2: Science, Atheism and the Search for Proof

Part 4: Love as our Compass >


My Christian faith has undergone some drastic changes in recent years.

I’ve often wondered if my growing skepticism would eventually lead me to abandon faith altogether.

As it turns out, diving all the way in to my deepest doubts and fears hasn’t led me away from Christianity, but instead has revealed a richness and beauty to the Christian faith I had never known. It now resonates on a much deeper level, and seems to speak more profound truth than it ever did before.

This sort of faith can be difficult and frustratingly foggy at times, but it has an honesty and authenticity that allows it to exist comfortably alongside my skepticism. It allows me to fully engage my brain as well as my heart, and isn’t so easily shaken when faced with the inevitable tough questions.


One of the most significant changes has been to the way I see the Bible.

Contrary to well-meaning advice from many a concerned Christian, reading the Bible is not a good cure for skepticism. In my experience, it usually magnifies it.

The Bible is messy.

It’s confusing and contradictory and just plain weird in some places. For a skeptic like me, every passage raises new questions and doubts, and shines a floodlight on any that were already lurking in the shadows. For a while I actually refused to read the Bible at all, for fear that my faith might not make it out alive.

I’m not proud to admit it, but whenever someone tries to tell me what “the Bible clearly says”, a large part of me wants to smack them over the head with it.

I wish the Bible was clear. It would make things so much easier, wouldn’t it?

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I don’t think I ever believed God literally wrote the Bible.

Even in the early days, that idea seemed a bit farfetched. But almost without realising, I had been grasping onto the idea that it couldn’t just be a load of old books written by people. People get things wrong. I wanted the Bible to be more than that. It had to have some sort of divine, supernatural powers that made it worth all this attention. If not, what made it different to anything else people have written? How could I trust it at all?

I was clinging tightly to the belief that God had in some abstract way written and compiled the Bible. And it was killing my faith.

Letting go of this belief felt a bit like letting go of a cliff edge. Or choosing the red pill in the Matrix. It felt like was choosing to see things how they really were, and I wasn’t sure my faith would be able to survive. My belief in the Bible as the authoritative Word of God was a comfort blanket, but it was full of holes. I either had to spend my life desperately trying to sew up the holes, or get rid of the blanket altogether and face whatever might happen as a result.

To cut a long story short, I took the plunge and my faith survived. In fact, I found I was able to see things in a whole new light, with a fresh perspective and a renewed sense of hope. It actually made the whole thing seem more plausible, meaningful and exciting, not less.


To explain a bit more about how I got to this point, here are some of my thought processes presented as a conversation between myself (Me Now) and an imagined version of myself from ten years ago (Me Then)…

MT: What do you mean the Bible isn’t the authoritative Word of God? Isn’t that, like, the most central belief of Christianity?

MN: I don’t think so.

MT: OK… what do you think Christians should believe?

MN: The life and teachings of Jesus are a good place to start.

MT: …which we wouldn’t know about without the Bible!

MN: Absolutely – I didn’t say we should get rid of the Bible altogether. It’s still a central part of my faith, and massively influences how I understand and relate to God. I just approach it a bit differently now.

MT: Wait, doesn’t the Bible talk about itself as the Word of God?

MN: The Bible as we know it didn’t exist in Biblical times, did it? When it talks about ‘The Word’, it’s talking about Jesus. Scripture is important of course, but seeing it as The Authoritative Word of God causes a lot of problems. For instance, if you believe it’s God saying all those things, then God must be mean and violent as well as the very definition of love. It’s hard to make sense of that. You end up putting so much effort into defending the authority of the Bible in its ancient, messy weirdness that you can miss the actual revelations of God within it.

MT: But if it’s not the authoritative Word of God, then it’s just…

MN: …a remarkable collection of ancient stories, myths, poems, songs and letters, written by people from different countries and cultures within a 1500-or-so year timespan, all with their own culturally, socially and politically-soaked perspectives and agendas, conveying their wisdom and understanding of the nature of God and how to live well in the world.

MT: Right. I guess that would explain a lot. So do you think the Bible gets things wrong, if it’s basically just different people saying what they think? 

MN: Potentially, yes.

MT: So what use is it then, if we can’t trust that it’s true?

MN: What do you mean, ‘true’?

MT: Well, accurate I guess. Trustworthy. I want the Bible to tell me how to live. Guide me, comfort me, explain why things are the way they are.

MN: And it can do all those things. But it doesn’t need to be The Authoritative Word of God for God to offer you comfort and wisdom through it.

MT: But I want it to give clarity, I want answers!

MN: Me too. I still crave that sometimes. But let’s be honest, the Bible’s not very good at clarity, is it?

MT: No, I suppose not. Look at all the different denominations within Christianity, all claiming to have correctly interpreted the Bible. If it was clear, we wouldn’t be so divided. 

MN: Exactly.

MT: Well how we know anything then, if we can’t rely on the Bible? How can we prove God even exists?

MN: There are more important things in life than knowing things objectively and proving that we’re right. If God did write us a letter revealing the meaning of “life, the universe and everything” once and for all, what would we do then? What kind of people would we become?

MT: Pretty arrogant I guess! But rightly so, if we actually knew all the answers. OK, I see your point about the Bible not being an answer book. But isn’t it supposed to be inspired, “God-breathed”?

MN: For sure. At the very least, I believe the people who wrote the Bible were inspired by their experiences of God. I’d also say God’s Spirit breathes into the words of the Bible, using these people’s experiences and shared wisdom to bring new hope, light and life into the world. But you could also say that we are “God-breathed”. Human beings somehow bear the image of God; we have been “breathed into” by the divine spirit. That phrase “God-breathed” isn’t exclusive to the Bible.

MT: Why read the Bible then? What makes it special?

MN: Because it’s a rich and fascinating story of human beings developing in their understanding of God and of what it means to live on this planet. It tells of God interacting with humans and calling them into greater love and freedom. If you really read the Bible, study it in its historical and religious context and figure out what the writers were actually trying to say, you discover a depth of meaning and significance that you miss entirely if you try and read it as a factual textbook or instruction manual. It contains layer upon layer of subversive, progressive wisdom that was utterly groundbreaking then and is still incredibly relevant, challenging and inspiring today. For anyone seek to deepen their experience of life, and to know God, the Bible holds infinite value.

MT: Except that it might be wrong.

MN: Maybe our purpose in life is not to find all the correct answers. Jesus, as portrayed in the Bible, shows us a way to know God through living a life of love. It’s about practising a way of life and being transformed from the inside out. That doesn’t come through having all the answers.

MT: I don’t like it. I still want something more concrete to base my life on, something I know I can trust. 

MN: I think we are supposed to put our trust in God, not the Bible. Yes, the Bible can point us to God, but the Bible itself isn’t God. I think people sometimes get confused about that.

MT: But how do we know what God is like without the Bible?

MN: We still have the Bible! It contains the most valuable revelations of God’s character we have. But knowing God, being transformed… those things come through a lifetime of wrestling with questions, struggles and doubts, and learning how to relate to one another and to God. Faith is a way of life, not a set of static beliefs.

I’m not going to lie, these changes can be unsettling and scary. I definitely experienced a loss of security which was pretty hard to deal with. But we have to let the Bible be what it is. By forcing it to be something it was never supposed to be, we run the serious risk of missing the point entirely, and doing a lot of damage in the process.

We can’t know it all, but we can let go of our need to know, and trust God. It’s messy and foggy and difficult, but there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.


I have lots more to say. Subscribe via email to receive updates when I publish posts.

If you want to get in touch and share your own thoughts or experiences you can leave comments, find me on Facebook or Twitter or email musicineverysound@gmail.com.

< Part 2: Science, Atheism and the Search for Proof

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Faith in the Fog: Science, Atheism and the Search for Proof

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This is Part 2 of my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

< Part 1: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian

Part 3: Faith in the Fog: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible >


The Fear of Science

One of the biggest steps towards learning to deal with my own crippling skepticism has been to convince myself that Christianity is not irrational.

Deep down I had always feared that if I thought too deeply or learned too much about science, this faith that brought hope and meaning to my life would eventually be exposed as wishful thinking, no more credible than an ancient myth or fairy tale.

You know what I’m talking about.

That nagging suspicion that if the beliefs at the centre of our faith were examined under a microscope for too long they might disappear into nothing, revealed to be unfounded and delusional.

The fear that science might disprove God.

In its more extreme forms, this fear of science leads some Christians to make absurd claims about the historical and scientific accuracy of Biblical texts. They fear that if even one aspect of their belief system is proved to be false, the whole thing might collapse. In the eyes of these Christians, scientists must be either deluded or evil, deliberately trying to distort the truth.

My fear of science came in subtler forms. For example, it concerned me that spiritual experiences and ‘answers to prayer’ could be explained away by psychology and neuroscience. How could I fully trust the Christian story if science was able to give equally, often more credible explanations?

I wanted proof of God’s existence, and science seemed to be eroding all my evidence. Skepticism was gradually gnawing away at my faith.


The Rise of New Atheism

It’s pretty hard to ignore atheism these days. The atheist voice in our culture is loud, angry and very convincing at times. So much so that belief in God can seem a bit silly, like still believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus.

This quote is from the British comedian, Jimmy Carr:

“When I was a kid, I used to have an imaginary friend. I thought he went everywhere with me. I could talk to him and he could hear me, and he could grant me wishes and stuff too. But then I grew up, and stopped going to church.”

Ouch! That hurts, doesn’t it?

More and more I found myself wondering if people like Jimmy were right – the whole Christianity thing was one giant hoax, a distraction from reality.

In a discussion between atheists and Christians, I would nearly always find myself siding with the atheists. The thing is, Christians are irrational a lot of the time, and atheists are actually doing important work in exposing the bad side of religion.

I was never really fussed about the finer points of Christian belief. They differ from one denomination to the next, from one church to the next. Heck, for me they can change from one week to the next. I was concerned with the BIG questions. Was the universe designed by a supreme Being? Is there such thing as a spiritual realm? Does life have ultimate purpose and meaning?

(I should mention at this point that I am married to a biologist, who is also a Christian. For him, science and faith are entirely compatible, and atheism is no more rational than Christianity. It is through many lengthy discussions with him, and through reading the work of other like-minded thinkers, that I have been able to come to the following conclusions.)


Science has its limits

Jimmy Carr was brought up Catholic and, like many others, became an atheist after reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

In this hugely influential book, Dawkins’ argues that:

  • Evolution through natural selection provides evidence against intelligent design by a Creator.
  • We don’t need religion to be good.
  • Religion is bad for the world.
  • The God Hypothesis cannot be proven and is highly improbable, therefore God almost certainly doesn’t exist.

I actually agree with many of his arguments, and would probably be a convert if it weren’t for the following points:

  • There are a great number of scientists, including biologists, who believe in God.
  • There is some scientific evidence that religious belief can have benefits for general wellbeing. This doesn’t mean that it is definitely a good thing for the planet as a whole, but it makes the blanket statement “religion is bad” scientifically untenable. (Mike McHargue’s Finding God In The Waves explores some of this research in fascinating detail).
  • The God Hypothesis cannot be proven, but neither can the Atheist Hypothesis.

Science is the study of the natural world. It is very good at showing us how things work. But it cannot comment on the why questions. It can tell us how the universe came to be and how complex life evolved through natural selection, but it is not qualified to make statements about meaning or purpose.

The Christian scientists I have come across tend to all say a similar thing: science tells us how life works, faith gives it meaning. They are not in opposition. Christianity and Rationalism are examples of interpretive frameworks or narratives used to explain what we see in the world around us – science itself doesn’t take sides.


The Very Unsatisfactory Conclusion

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that ultimately, none of us can know the answers to these big questions. If we delve as far as we can into theology, philosophy, science, history and any other discipline we can think of, at the centre we find a deep mystery. A fog. We humans just aren’t capable of grasping ultimate knowledge about divine things.

This is very disappointing news for, well, all of us really. It’s not at all fun being in the fog. We want clarity. We crave answers and neat explanations. We long for the power to understand everything and the ability to prove everyone else wrong. We’ve mastered everything else, why can’t we prove or disprove the existence of God?

Because we’re only human, that’s why. As much as we would like to be, we are not omniscient.

This means that whether I believe in God or not, it’s a choice. It takes faith to believe in God, and it takes faith to believe that there is no God. (Any atheists reading this will have smashed their screens by now). I can’t prove it either way, so I make up my mind as best I can based on the evidence I have.

This is bad news for many atheists, for whom getting rid of the fog means wiping out all religion and holding rationalism as the only form of truth. It’s also bad news for many Christians, for whom getting rid of the fog means proving the existence of God once and for all.

We have to learn to live in the fog, which means admitting that whatever our position, we could be wrong.


Reimagining Faith

I remember having a mini-revelation about all this while walking along the canal in my parents’ village one afternoon in late summer. I was grilling my husband (again) about science and faith issues and how we can know we’re not deluding ourselves… when the most blindingly obvious but soul-stirringly profound thought struck me. That’s what faith is. If we could prove it, it wouldn’t be faith.

I longed so much for proof. I felt sure that if only I could know for certain that God existed, I would find assurance and peace of mind.

I have to tell you, figuring out that there are no absolute answers available to me didn’t do much for my peace of mind. But having confidence that to be a person of faith is just as intellectually valid as being an atheist was a good starting point. It gave me intellectual permission to continue calling myself a Christian, and to seek to deepen my experience of life through faith in an ultimate Source and a deeper meaning. It also gave me intellectual permission to read as many “secular” books as I liked without fearing that they might disprove God.

To conclude, we return to the problem I explored in Part 1 of this series, of faith being primarily about intellectual beliefs held as objective fact. If my faith is based entirely on a solid framework of beliefs, then if any of them are challenged I’m in trouble. (Or I can just put my fingers in my ears and sing loudly). My faith has to be based on more than intellectual reasoning. I simply can’t prove my beliefs rationally to anyone else, so I have to hold onto them lightly, respect the views of others and be genuinely open to changing my mind.

As I said, this was a starting point for me. Part 3 coming soon…


 

If you want to get in touch and share your own thoughts or experiences you can leave comments, find me on Facebook or Twitter or email musicineverysound@gmail.com.

< Part 1: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian

Part 3: Faith in the Fog: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible >

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Faith in the Fog: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian

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This is the first post in my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

Part 2: Science, Atheism and the Search for Proof >


How do I trust God when I’m no longer convinced he even exists?

How do I stop myself from being swallowed whole by the fear and despair that can come from seriously rethinking my beliefs?

How do I pray when it seems like there’s probably no-one listening?

Can my faith survive this?


If you have ever asked questions like these, I hope you know that you are not alone.

If your doubts become so overwhelming that you wonder if you are losing your faith altogether, then you are in good company.

Having serious doubts about the faith that has been a (possibly the) central part of your life can be unsettling, confusing and scary.

I don’t know many things for sure these days, but I am fairly certain that it’s possible to have an authentic, healthy and soul-nourishing faith whilst also being a skeptic. I continue to wrestle with these questions almost daily, but I no longer fear that I am losing my faith. I actually think these questions are a valuable part of my faith.


One of the biggest shifts in my thinking has been the realisation that faith is not supposed to be about having strong beliefs.

It’s still a pretty widespread assumption that being a Christian is mostly about what you believe. Of course, how you choose to live is important – there are very few Christians who would deny that. But it seems to me that what matters most to the majority of Christians is believing certain doctrinal statements. If you accept these statement as fact, you are saved; not by doing good works, but by asserting the validity of a particular set of intellectual propositions.

I’m not saying beliefs don’t matter at all. What we believe to be true drastically affects how we live our lives. It’s just that when we’re talking about things like God and the nature of reality and the future of the cosmos, we can never really know, can we? We are human beings, by definition limited in our capacity to understand such things.

It’s fine (and necessary) to have ideas and theories and doctrines about God, provided we remember that as long as they are contained within language and can fit neatly into human brains, they are utterly inadequate. A human claiming to understand God is not dissimilar a fruit fly landing on the tail of a Boeing 747 and claiming to understand the intricacies of aeronautical engineering.

(This may seem obvious to some, but it took me a long, long time to come to this realisation).

Once I started letting go of intellectual beliefs as the centre of my faith, things started to get decidedly foggy. My beliefs had been a sturdy framework on which to build my life; an interpretive lens through which I made sense of the world. When those beliefs started to shake and evolve, it was unnerving to say the least.

I’ve asked about every troubling question you can imagine, and yet my faith remains intact. It’s a lot less comfortable than before, and in some ways barely recognisable, but it’s also deeper, richer and more authentic. It’s constantly changing too, which can be exhausting, but also kind of exhilarating.


Forging a different kind of faith

In this Faith in the Fog series I plan to go into detail about various aspects of my evolving faith, coping with skepticism, and ways of thinking about things that have helped me navigate uncertainty and doubt.

I have things I want to say about the Bible, science, learning to trust again, prayer and spiritual practices, and mental health.

Mental health has been a particular interest of mine for over a decade now and it has become intertwined with my understanding of spirituality and faith. I think the two are inextricably linked in many ways. I particularly want to explore the mental health issues that can arise as the result of a “crisis of faith”, and share some coping strategies I have picked up along the way. (My life has been one long “crisis of faith” in recent years, and as someone prone to anxiety I have worked hard to find ways of maintaining some sense of equilibrium in the midst of existential chaos).


Experiencing serious doubt and skepticism can be tough, scary and depressing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re losing your faith. It could be the first step into a deeper, richer, more authentic faith.

You can take the plunge and face the difficult questions head on. Your faith might change beyond recognition, but it can survive.


If you want to get in touch and share your own experiences you can leave comments, find me on Facebook or Twitter or email musicineverysound@gmail.com.

Part 2: Science, Atheism and the Search for Proof >

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Dear God, help me to believe in you.

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Dear God,

Today I am not sure you exist, but I’m praying anyway.

It seems as though the older I get and the more I learn, the less sure I am about anything.

I never used to doubt you, not really. I was taught that I could have absolute confidence and certainty in my beliefs, and I did. I was taught that there were clear explanations for everything if I was just clever enough to understand. We had the answers, others needed to hear them before it was too late. I suppose we thought we owned you, in a way.

Now I look around and see how this sort of “strong faith” so often leads to a closed-minded, blinding arrogance that causes people to justify oppression, violence and destruction of our planet, and I find myself siding with the atheists.

I was taught that you always answer prayer, and that if I fully trusted you and prayed with faith, all would be well.

Now I see images of boats crammed full of desperate families in life-jackets, surely praying harder and with more faith than I could ever possibly muster, whose cries for help apparently go unanswered. If you don’t answer those prayers, how can I be so arrogant to think that you will answer mine?

I was taught that I could have a relationship with you, but how do I silence the voice in my head that tells me you are a figment of my imagination, a kind of Santa Claus for grown-ups? How can I trust and rely on you as my closest friend and Father when you might not exist?

I suspect I am never going to stop asking these questions, but I know I will never give up my faith. The Jesus story (although not the penal-substitution-soaked, exclusive, it’s-all-about-avoiding-hell one) remains the best, most beautiful, fascinating and potentially world-changing story I have ever heard. Whether or not it’s factually true, I still believe it could save us. I am clinging to that.

The uncomfortable truth is that none of us can ever really know what all of this is about. But I would rather live with hope and be wrong than become a nihilist and be right.

So I will continue praying, even when I am convinced I am deluding myself. And maybe, just maybe, that is what faith is supposed to be about.

Maybe “strong faith” doesn’t mean having absolute certainty in my beliefs. Maybe it means refusing to let go of hope even when it seems entirely implausible that there is any deeper meaning to life.

Maybe faith is more like floating on the surface of a deep ocean than standing on a mountain top.

So God, if you are there, help me never to doubt you so much that I lose hope, but never to be so certain about you that I lose faith.

Amen.

“If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.”

Søren Kierkegaard

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Confessions of a Doubting Christian

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Some days I find it really hard to believe in God.

I sit in church surrounded by the familiar, friendly faces, perusing the notice sheet as the worship band finish their sound check with a chorus of ‘10,000 Reasons’, and I’m convinced we’ve made it all up.

We’re kidding ourselves, aren’t we? It’s obviously just wishful thinking. A fairy story. A diversion from reality, far too good to be true.

The questions rage, unfiltered, through my mind.

‘If there is a God, why would he answer our prayers about the weather for the summer youth camp whilst ignoring the cries of a Syrian mother begging for her three young children to be spared?’

‘Even if there is a God who answers prayer, how likely is it that we predominantly white, middle class Baptists in 21st Century Britain have him/her all figured out?’

‘Isn’t it perfectly possible that all our ‘spiritual’ experiences and answers to prayer can be explained away by psychology and neuroscience?’

I look around at other people in the congregation and wonder, is it just me? Or are there others who have these same doubts but are too afraid to admit it?


It seems to me that people are walking out of church and losing their faith altogether because they are never given space to ask the tough questions. When their worldview expands and the ‘truth’ they were taught in Sunday School stops making sense, the church responds by praying for their poor, backsliding souls and offering easy answers and carefully selected Bible verses.

We have a tendency to take the deepest mysteries of the universe and try to condense them down into straight forward language and neat formulas. Of course, there are names, stories and metaphors that can give us some sense of understanding of God, but they are only useful as long as we remember that we can never really know what we’re talking about. These metaphors can speak deep, transformative truth into our lives, but if we start trying to speak of this truth in terms of factual reality, we start to lose the plot.

Questions are inevitable. Doubt is a healthy part of faith – it shows we are living, feeling, thinking human beings, and if God is real, I think he can handle it.


I am generally suspicious of Christians who claim to be certain about what they believe.

I think religious certainty is one of the biggest problems in the world today, and I think it is driving people out of the church.

Religious certainty tends to make us judgemental of others. We become very good at categorising people into those who are in and those who are not.

Religious certainty can make us so focussed on the spiritual realm and the afterlife that we ignore, or even justify the catastrophic effect our lifestyles are having on the planet.

Religious certainty leads to violence. If any group holds their beliefs above all else, eventually destroying the “other” using violence will seem justifiable.

Religious certainty has the potential to tear the world apart.


That said, I do totally get it – religious certainty feels great.

I think back to the time when I felt certain about my beliefs, the Bible was clear and I had no need to question it. In many ways, I really miss that kind of faith. I’m still mourning the loss of the certainty I once felt in Christianity and the cosy sense of security that came with it.

I completely understand why some Christians are so fiercely defensive about their beliefs. They insist that we can be certain because the Bible is inerrant and infallible. They respond to questions and doubts by putting their fingers in their ears and singing louder, or by shaming the one who is doubting.

Life is so much easier when you’re certain about everything. To let doubt have a voice is to risk losing that certainty, or even losing faith altogether, and that can be terrifying.


As uncomfortable and unsettling as it can be, I am learning to embrace doubt as an essential part of my faith. If God exists, he is beyond any of my wildest thoughts, deeper than my deepest fears and able to withstand my most troubling questions.

Some days my faith is strong. I am filled with hope, I sense that I am part of a greater story and I feel consumed by a love wider than the universe.

Other days my faith feels like fumbling around in the dark for a rope, or steering in the vague direction of a small flicker of light on the horizon.

And I think that’s OK. It’s scary, but facing up to my unknowing is often exhilarating and always humbling. If my faith is not at its core a deep, unfathomable mystery, then I’ve lost my way.

‘I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything … the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.’

Anne Lamott

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‘Finding God In The Waves: How I Lost My Faith And Found It Again Through Science’, by Mike McHargue

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Reviewed by Emma Higgs

In a time of extreme rationalism and extreme religion, with anti-religious sentiments at an all-time high and religious violence and bigotry often dominating our headlines, Mike McHargue’s Finding God in the Waves offers a timely, profound and fascinating discussion on the relationship between religion and science, faith and doubt.

Finding God in the Waves is first and foremost for those who feel trapped between faith and reason; those who desire some kind of faith or sense a deeper meaning to life, but feel unable to reconcile this with science and rational thought. It offers a lifeline to those who are struggling with doubt or mourning a loss of faith; providing satisfying, empirical evidence that faith in God is not a foolish superstition or a dangerous diversion from reality. Using evidence from studies into neuroscience and faith, Mike McHargue (AKA ‘Science Mike’) shows the positive effects faith and prayer in particular can have on people’s lives, and gives practical advice on how someone desiring faith can develop brain tissue to make them more likely to experience God. The book also gives valuable insight into both conservative evangelical Christianity and atheism, showing the goodness, authenticity and compassion within both sides that can so easily be overlooked in intellectual debate.3dbookshot

Mike tells his story of growing up as a Southern Baptist, suffering the devastating loss of his faith and spending two years as an undercover atheist (“the world’s least interesting secret agent”) within his beloved Baptist community. He is then profoundly impacted by a mystical experience on a beach, which sparks his gradual return to a form of faith that could withstand his own skepticism and sit comfortably within his extensive understanding of science.

Mike writes in an accessible, conversational style, combining his own incredible story with fascinating excursions into cosmology and neuroscience. His ability to communicate complex scientific theories in a compelling and comprehensible way is quite extraordinary; he provides detailed, scientifically credible explanations, whilst keeping me (a non-scientist with a short attention span) glued to the page. This is no mean feat. Mike is brutally honest and open in telling his story, and the account of his loss of faith cuts right to the heart of the fears and doubts experienced by many Christians. He is also hilarious – there are regular ‘laugh out loud’ moments, interspersed between the existential crises and the mind-blowing scientific insights.

The first half of the book is a compelling and heart-wrenching account of Mike’s experiences of finding, losing and finding faith. Starting with his days as an overweight science nerd talking to Jesus as he hid from bullies in the woods, he describes how his faith became his source of comfort and hope, and the foundation on which his whole world was built. When he is rocked by the news of his parents’ marriage break up, Mike seeks comfort and guidance from the Bible, “binge-reading” it four times through, desperately looking for answers and clarity “with the fervour of a man trapped in a well”. Instead, his faith unravels. He embarks on a truth-seeking mission which ultimately leads him to the devastating conclusion that there is no evidence of the existence of God. Mike describes the turmoil, anxiety and depression that comes with loss of faith, and the gradual process of coming to terms with reality without God. After two years as a closeted atheist, Mike has an experience on a beach in California which leaves him feeling like he had met with God. This marks the start of his gradual return to faith, but it is by no means a straight forward ‘happy ending’, and the faith he finds is very different from the one he had lost two years previously.

In the second half of the book, Mike takes us through the detailed reasoning behind his faith reconstruction. He never seeks to prove the existence of God, but rather seeks to show that the pursuit of faith is rational and healthy. He talks about finding God in cosmology, and about the effect that different forms of faith have on the brain. He provides practical steps that a skeptical person can take to develop faith and experience God without feeling like they have to abandon all rational thought. He discusses the meaning and significance of Jesus, the role of the church, and Biblical interpretation (a way of reading the Bible that doesn’t result in atheism). Underpinning Science Mike’s reasoning are a set of axioms about aspects of the Christian faith – self-evident statements that provide a foundation for faith to grow, and act as a barrier against skepticism and doubt. These have the potential to be profoundly helpful and significant for anyone wrestling with doubt and skepticism who is seeking to strengthen their faith.

This is one of those books that I shall be coming back to again and again. For me it’s been a game changer – simultaneously deeply unsettling and profoundly comforting. It has given me a way to move forward in my faith, to fully embrace science and rationalism whilst remaining open to the greater mysteries of reality, and the deeper meaning behind it all.


‘Finding God in the Waves’ by Mike McHargue was released on 13th Sept 2016.

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Love, Love, Love: the painfully misunderstood, profoundly simple, earth-shattering message of Jesus

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If someone was to ask me to sum up the message of Jesus in a few words, I would probably quote the Beatles.

All you need is love.

Love. 

Not just shallow, gooey, fluffy, romantic love.

The kind of love that sets people free.

Love that gives of itself endlessly and asks for nothing in return.

Love that fights tirelessly for the needs and rights of strangers.

Love that breaks down barriers, crosses borders, and shatters social constructs and expectations.

Love that sees the beauty in all life and seeks to honour, treasure and nurture it.

Love that treats the outcasts of society as if they were worth more than all the diamonds, gold and oil in the world combined.

Love that brings tangible hope to those who are suffering physical or emotional pain… those who are lonely, lost or terrified… those whose hearts ache with grief… those who long for deeper meaning and significance.

Love that points to a greater reality, a greater purpose and a greater future for the whole of creation.

Love that never, ever, ever gives up.

That is the kind of love that brings transformation.


This is not a sideline to the main Gospel message in the Bible, an optional ad-on that helps to make life more bearable but is ultimately pointless.

This is the point.


Over the centuries, we ‘Christians’ have complicated and distorted this message.

We have added conditions, built walls, piled on guilt. We have embarked upon great, well-meaning excursions in entirely the wrong direction, and fought battles in the name of Jesus without realising it is Jesus himself we are fighting.

In particular, we are still obsessed with the idea of “purity”. We have this deeply ingrained idea that our job is to be the Morality Police, to keep everyone in check and keep standards up. The church’s preoccupation with sexuality makes this all too clear.

Our job is not to make sure everyone meets all of our moral ideals. Our job is to love. That is what we should be known for.

This is far from a wishy-washy, watered-down, ‘easy’ version of the Gospel.

Love is as fierce as a mother defending her children in a war zone. It is as powerful as a tsunami and illuminates even the darkest, most hopeless places.

Love speaks out against the powers of this world that crush those on the underside. It cries out on behalf of those who have no voice. It swims against the tides of culture and refuses to participate in systems and structures that breed inequality and injustice.

Love is transforming this world.

One day love will win.

And in the meantime, Jesus tells us to get on with the dirty, dangerous work of loving against all odds.


There are many things we cannot understand and will never be able to fully explain.

But just imagine what could happen if we ‘Christians’ accepted this mystery, and channeled all the energy we spend arguing about moral issues into unconditionally, selflessly and tirelessly loving our world.

(Note: Moral issues are important but secondary. I suspect if love truly was our compass and our driving force, the moral issues would start to resolve themselves or at least pale into insignificance.)


Love. No ifs, no buts.

Profoundly simple yet radically counter-cultural and earth-shattering.

I wonder if the Beatles knew how right they were.

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Homosexuality and the Bible: An Epic Conversation with my Anti-theist Brother

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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.


Simon:

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!).


Emma:

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.


Simon:

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.


Emma:

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.

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