The Washington Post’s “On Faith” column has an article today on how religious groups have been reacting to the Boy Scout’s decision to lift its ban on openly gay members. Here is an excerpt:
Experts say the Scout vote embodies the struggle going on today in traditional religion over homosexuality. There is a strong desire and effort to be more welcoming — and even affirming — of some equal rights, but not to back off completely. But that’s proving tricky to do…
Which leads to a question: Can you affirm the complete human dignity and equal stature of someone while simultaneously saying one of their basic attributes makes them an undesirable role model?
The complex terrain for religious traditionalists was evident in a statement released Thursday by the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, the body advising Catholic dioceses on the new policy.
It says the new policy is “not in conflict with Catholic teaching,” and that the teaching says gay people “are to be treated with the same dignity due all human beings created by God.” But it also says Catholics could have voted against lifting the ban and that would have been fine, too. If it’s only moral to welcome gay boys, how is it equally moral to ban them?
This untenable middle way is something that I wanted to illustrate in the novel Angel. Most mainstream Christian denominations are in this position of wanting to be home to those who believe homosexuality is a sin and the growing majority who feel that this is not the compassionate position for Christians to take. Here is a bit of dialogue between the characters Ian and Paul:
“What about your tradition? What does your church say about gays?”
“We’re against discrimination, but we’re not allowed to perform gay weddings, and church won’t ordain anyone who is openly gay.”
“Why won’t they ordain someone who’s gay?”
“I guess they think it’s a bad example.”
“So it’s like, we want to be open and welcoming to you, even though we think you’re a dirty sinner?”
“I think our position is evolving. Society changes and the church changes too.”
“But that’s not what you believe. You don’t think it’s a sin.”
“You think there’s a New Covenant. But your church says it is a sin, and you think that’s OK because it’s their tradition?”
“That’s the position they took on the issue.”
“And that’s OK with you?”
“I don’t think it’s a contradiction, theologically, for a church to take that position.”
This does go to the question of whether Paul’s church is particularly conservative, which I addressed here earlier. It seems as though this compromise position is right in line with mainstream thought.
Although we tend to think of “the church” as the stodgy keeper of dusty tradition, in fact the religions that have staying power have proven to be flexible and adaptable over time. (If more slowly than other parts of society.)
The Religious Case against Belief makes the argument that it is not a religious group’s position on a particular social issue or even the way it expresses its theology that makes it a religion.
Essentially he argues that the only form of eternal life there is comes through the generations and the continuing cohesion of the religious ritual, history and sense of being a Christian, Jew or Muslim.
Carse argues that there is no such thing as Christian belief (or any other religious belief) and that there is only a constant searching and argument about what it is to be part of the community of the religion. What Jews have in common is continually asking the question of what it is to be a Jew. What Christians have in common is continually asking the question of what it is to be a Christian.
Religion is as culture and community organized around a mystery or collection of mysteries. The unknown unknowables. What makes you Buddhist as opposed to Hindu is not how you answer, but how you ask the question. The framing of your search for answers to the mysteries is religion.
Seen in that light, the internal debate about how Christians should respond to the conflict between Biblical condemnation of homosexuality and the requirement to be compassionate to all people, is not something that is weakening the religion or tearing it apart. It is a vibrant display of this constantly renewing process of a religious community seeking to define itself.
The question for Christians now seems to be whether Christianity is at its essence a religion of Biblical law that serves as a guidebook to living or whether it is a religion based on the question “How do I treat the least among these?” If the answer is both, which aspect comes out on top if those two seem to be in conflict?
These types of questions are not a bug, they are a feature. They are what makes the religion what it is. Religions don’t change from the top down, the community changes first, and eventually the leadership comes to reflect what already exists. Leadership tends to work that way in general.