I took a break from the regular meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature last week in order to attend an ‘affiliate’ organisation meeting where David Gushee was talking about his change of mind about sexuality. Gushee isn’t that well known on this side of the pond, but has been a significant figure in the US as an evangelical ethicist. In 2014 he published Changing Our Mind arguing for evangelical acceptance of committed, monogamous same-sex unions as marriage. I am not sure that the book adds very much distinctive to the issues and arguments that have already been rehearsed, but reading a book is never the same as meeting a person, and so it proved last week.
Most of Gushee’s comments focussed on his story and his experiences, rather than any argument, and his story was a compelling one of courageous engagement. He recounted his personal experience of gay men and women who had been driven to despair or even suicide by what could only be described as a callous commitment to doctrine which paid no regard to the personal costs involved. His most moving story was his final one, and his shortest. ‘When he committed suicide, his family refused to bury him. So we did.’ Throughout his presentation, Gushee looked bowed and burdened, a little as though he didn’t want to be there, and didn’t want to be talking to us (a very mixed audience, with the whole spectrum of views) about this. It might have been that he was exhausted from this round of meetings; he has just come from debating with others in the Evangelical Theological Society which had probably been a much less congenial context. But I suspected that he was actually burdened by the realities he was described, and it weighed heavily.
If Gushee is correct that the choice is between a crushing and dehumanising belief in the ‘plain teaching’ of Scripture and the way that has been implemented, at great cost to gay people, by conservative evangelicals, and the compassionate response and rethinking the Gushee himself has exhibited, then there is no doubt at all that Gushee has made the right choice.
So the choice of dialogue partner was interesting. Ronald Sider was a generation older than Gushee, and had in fact been both mentor and inspiration to Gushee in his early adulthood. Sider is the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, ranked as the second most influential Christian book of the last century, and so has long been an advocate of compassionate Christian engagement with the realities of the world around. At every point, Sider was at pains to agree with Gushee that the conservative evangelical American response to the gay community needed to change—except on the question of how we understand sexual relations and marriage. In response to Gushee’s story, Sider raised a series of questions, but the issues were not really engaged in the dialogue. I found the same when I asked my own questions in the open discussion. The question of celibacy had come up several times, and Gushee made the common point that celibacy for Christian single women was not the same as celibacy for gay people, since for women ‘there was always some hope’. I pointed out that that is not the felt experience of single women, and for those committed to endogamous marriage (marrying another Christian) statistically it could not be the case for all of them. Gushee simply did not respond to this point—and it seemed odd that the compassionate response to one situation was not carried over into an engagement with the felt experience in another.
Something similar happened with my second question. Gushee’s case rests heavily on an understanding of gay identity as being core to gay people, and (as is common in Christian discourse on this) this meant that a rejection of same-sex marriage amounted to a rejection of gay people. I pointed Gushee to Oliver O’Donovan’s argument in relation to the creation narratives, that far from rejecting the gender binary of Genesis 2, this in effect multiplies it, so that we need to assume there are four ‘genders’ (or more): straight men, straight women, gay men, and gay women, each with their own essential identities as humans made in the image of God. I also mentioned research that didn’t support this, and the fact that secular campaigners appear to have abandoned this kind of argument some time ago. He responded that the idea of committed, monogamous same-sex relations was a challenge to secular positions, but didn’t actually touch at all on the issues of substance. It felt as though, for Gushee, the overwhelming experience of the emotion involved appeared to silence all other discourse and engagement with any actual arguments.
This kind of dynamic can be seen in the review by Gushee’s former colleague, George Guthrie, of the book. Guthrie’s response includes the profoundly personal:
As a member of the broader evangelical Baptist community, it would be all too easy to either remain quiet or simply dismiss David. But I cannot treat him so impersonally and condescendingly. Until 2007 David served as a professor of Christian ethics at Union University where I teach. During our years of service together, many of us knew him as an articulate, compassionate, thoughtful colleague and an outstanding teacher, one who held the historic Christian view on the topics of sexuality and marriage. For some of us he has been a dear friend with whom we ate, played, prayed, worshiped, served, and faced crises…. David, ever articulate, has always been at his best when calling for compassion, and I gladly join my friend in eschewing (as we always have) any form of violence, hate, or rejection of LGBT people as people. As I will note below, I also agree there’s much we in the church must do to live out biblical sexuality more faithfully and embody the gospel more authentically in relation to the LGBT community.
But he, too, highlights the lack of proper engagement at key points in the book:
But surprisingly, having pointed to the historic Christian argument on “creation order” and the answer to it as critical for his position, David does little to engage the key passages and fails to walk us through the “careful consideration” he’s promised. In fact, he covers the Genesis texts related to the question of sexuality in a single paragraph (82–83). We’re exposed neither to the details of the exegetical issues related to sex and gender nor to the rich tapestry and beauty of the overarching story (as with, for instance, Walter Brueggemann’s literary analysis of Genesis 1:1–11:29). There’s brief mention but no real engagement with the Hebrew terms for “male” (z???r) and “female” (n?q???h) in Genesis 1:27, which, as opposed to the terms for “man” and “woman,” very particularly express the binary nature of human sexuality. There’s no explanation of what the text means by the Hebrew neg?e? (the woman as one who’s “opposite but corresponds” to the man) in Genesis 2:20, nor of David’s view of “one fleshness” in Genesis 2:24. He probes neither the story nor its parts, so it’s difficult to see how this constitutes a “careful consideration” of what he himself describes as central to the debate.
Sadly, Gushee’s response to this is to tell again an emotionally loaded allegorical story—as if the emotion is the only possible response to serious points in the debate. I wonder if this dynamic actually goes back many years. Gushee is not the only American evangelical whom I have recently heard describe his own story of change of heart. He talked of ‘accepting the view of my tradition, and of my trusted mentors, without question.’ I have to confess to not once having ever accepted the views either of my tradition or of my trusted mentors ‘without question.’ I am aware that makes me an awkward companion, but for Gushee and others there appears to have been a strange collusion between a conformist culture and a particular personality, where asking questions becomes an all-or-nothing test of loyalty, rather than a healthy critical engagement of received wisdom.
At the end of the session, Gushee and Sider were applauded for modelling something like ‘good disagreement’. (I am not sure that that exact phrase was used, but for some reason it is on my mind.) But I am not clear it was such a good model. There was no agreement on a final position, despite agreement along the way. There was not much resolution on how the two views might live together, even if there was still warm personal friendship. Perhaps most critically, there was little actual debate about some of the core issues and their implications. Gushee’s compassion was compelling, but so was Sider’s compassionate call for clarity on the key issues. If in the UK there is to be any progress in discussion, we will need to exercise both compassion and clarity.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?