Queer Holiness: A Review and Critique III: What has gone wrong?

Joshua Penduck writes: Let’s review. Bell has argued that the Church of England must reach the point of accepting gay marriage as well as implying some kind of concordance with contemporary sexual ethics in the modern West (his suggestive reference to aggiornamento on p 159 is revealing). Although the Bible has a narrative function within this, giving what appears to be a formal structure within which other ‘tools’ are used, his main argument comes through the ‘reason’ embodied in the biological and scientific sciences and the ‘experience’ of LGBTQI people. In Part I of this review, I outlined his argument. In Part II I addressed his poor rhetorical strategy. Here I address the main issues with the core of Bell’s argument.

The problem of Evolutionary Acid

The previous section of this review, for all its negative critique, did have a positive function in bringing to the surface the conflicting role of the Scriptures in Bell’s argument. Frequently he refers to grey areas. I have already noted his argument that Scripture is hermeneutically ‘grey’ on sexuality (I must confess that I find this deeply unconvincing; if Scripture was ‘grey’ here, I’d still be a liberal). He also notes that there are grey areas in the distinction between sexual acts and friendly acts—how we interpret this is somewhat subjective. Later on, he draws on Diarmaid MacCulloch in noting that there has not been a consistent Christian interpretation of marriage—thereby making it another grey area. Unsurprisingly, rather than indicating the need for caution, Bell uses the ‘grey’ as a way of saying, ‘This means we can shape it towards a liberal outcome.’ 

As such, despite all his paeans to Scripture, the strategy has been to undermine the central place of Scripture for giving practical and ethical content in the particularity of this debate. Anything that Scripture says about sexuality is considered either unclear, irrelevant or relativised. For example:

It is not enough to simply point to isolated texts without engaging with the whole record of God’s revelation, through scripture and through scripture applied to and tested against the living history of the people of God (51-2, emphasis mine)

I am completely in agreement with the first part of that sentence; it’s the second part I have problems with. Notice that phrase, ‘tested against’. Whereas Hookerian Anglicanism made the brilliant step of arguing that the role of Scripture is not to dictate all practical outcomes but rather to ‘test’ whether something is in accordance or harmony with it, now we have Scripture being ‘tested’ by the tools used to apply it—tradition (‘history’, ‘people of God’), reason (‘tested’), and experience (‘living people’). In principle, this means that even if Scripture was clear on matters of sexuality (which is the majority consensus of biblical scholars), it could be ignored if it doesn’t accord with reason and experience. Because Scripture has in effect been neutered, Bell can make such fascinating arguments as the following: 

It is reasonable at this point to ask the key question—why did God allow this to happen? Even if we take the most scientific understanding of evolution and consider the necessity of genetic mutation for evolution to occur, and we recognise the genetic influence—albeit as part of a multifactorial whole—on homosexuality and hence the likelihood of its development in evolutionary genetic processes as part of sexual function, the question remains: why did God allow those who He has called by name, and who are created in His image, to be born into a world in which they can never access a relational sexuality without being condemned to hell?

I’m going to ignore the last phrase—once again, an example of Bell’s keen desire to strawman the breadth of his opponents views into a singular rigid type (there are conservatives who do hold to the view Bell lambasts here; there are others for whom this is less a soteriological matter and more a matter of church order and teaching). Instead, let’s focus on the implication of his argument that because we have an ‘is’, that therefore gives us room for an ‘ought’. The ‘why’ is very strange here. Surely this is not just a question limited to matters of sexuality? Isn’t this a question of theodicy? Are we to say that of the many things that God ‘allows’ to happen this entails divine blessing? For example, in that psychopathy generally comes from genetic factors (as opposed to the social factors that lead to sociopathy), is this to indicate that because God allows psychopathy, God intends it? Arguments for inevitability due to evolutionary genetic processes do not stand up here either—for one thing, psychopathy can be considered inevitable due to evolutionary survival factors. 

Evolution, desire, the fall

Let’s take this argument closer to the world of sexuality. Evolutionary history has wired my brain to ensure that my genes are passed on as widely as possible. This is an important—indeed for genetic propagation ‘good’—function. However, it means that structurally I am not wired for monogamous faithfulness. To put things simplistically, whenever I see someone I find attractive, a shot of adrenaline shoots into my brain saying, ‘Have sex with them’. Sometimes, this urge is overwhelming and can consume all my thinking. For many people, it can even consume their acting too. Yet the ‘is’ does not imply an ‘ought’. Were it so, polygamy, concubinage, polyamory, or prostitution could be considered ‘good’, or at least tragically necessary solutions to the problem. Later, Bell writes:

Why has God created LGBTQI people who are intrinsically unable to access relational sexuality? Are we really to believe that by virtue of this accident of genes and environment, they are all called to abstinence? (97-8)

The response to the last rhetorical question is another rhetorical question: ‘Are we really to believe that by virtue of this accident of genes and environment, we are all called to exclusive monogamy?’ When Bell writes, ‘once again raising the question of how and why God would create people for whom this gift [sexuality] is dangled like a forbidden fruit’ (172) the response can once again be given regarding exclusive monogamy. Both are founded in evolutionary history and genetic wiring—though a greater argument could be made for the latter. (I am reminded here of South Park’s Satan explaining naturalism to Stan). 

Of course, for most Christians through the ages, the answer was simple: God did not intend such things, because he did not intend for sexuality to be used in such a way. How did it happen? The Fall. Naturally, Bell rejects such a move:

We have addressed the unconvincing “regression to the Fall” theological explanation in Part I—and it is no more convincing when we try to blame the diversity of human sexuality on the Fall in this context. As we know, sexuality appears to be a spectrum and as such, it is hard to neatly delineate that which is fallen from that which is good—it is also somewhat incoherent theology, as what we inevitably need to argue is that it is the entire sexuality of certain people that is “fallen” (i.e. those who are attracted to those of the same sex), which raised more theological questions than it answers. (Ibid).

This is a reference to his earlier argument from intersexuality, which he argues is a genetic inevitability, and cannot be considered an outcome of the Fall. In principle, I would agree (although I disagree with her theological perspective, I have found Susannah Cornwall’s Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ very helpful here); nevertheless there are theological ‘problems’ which emerge from other but related ethical cases if we take such a perspective. Though these problem do not discount Bell’s argument, my focus is that he relates the questions of intersexuality with sexual orientation. This is understandable from the perspective of LGBTQI; however, I think we are dealing with two separate matters, one being bodily condition and the other being orientation. 

Bell is keen to take the question of the Fall out of this area of sexuality. Earlier he writes, ‘regression to the Fall is not good theology’ (78). However, it is difficult to understand what he means by ‘the Fall’. Although he affirms his belief in it, he argues that it ‘may be expressed in new and different ways in each generation’ (30). The risk with such an approach is that it can be made to mean, ‘the Fall is whatever I consider Fallen’, and thereby a confirmation of one’s own ethical presuppositions. 

Disobedience, sin, and evil

His concept itself becomes quite flaccid when he argues that the Fall is ‘the doctrine that the world is not as it should be, but rather a place in which disobedience has brought sin and evil’. One must then ask: is not disobedience also an inevitability of our evolutionary history and our genetic wiring? Anyone who has spent time with a small child realises that disobedience is quite natural as soon as he or she can grasp the word ‘no’. Bell doesn’t state his model of understanding the Fall, though my suspicion is that he holds to the mimetic scapegoating theory of Rene Girard, whom he references on p 183. I have much respect for Girard’s theory, yet unless it resorts to using supernatural interference (for example, demonic entities, which Girard himself hints at), then the acid of evolutionary theory strikes again: to what extent is scapegoating a natural outcome of our evolutionary history and genetic wiring? Do we not have here a mere internal and social interaction between our ‘selfish’ and ‘altruistic’ genes? Gillian Rose’s critique of Girard—that he has ‘left the city’—demonstrates that the theory rests on as ahistorical foundation as the classical Augustinian approach to lapsarian theology in the light of modern science. 

The problem with Bell’s notion of lapsarian heterogenerationalism is that it doesn’t consider the idea that some models of the Fall are heretical—not all of which are explicitly announced as such by the Creeds. For example, many Gnostic understandings of the Fall are not explicitly ruled out by Nicaea or Chalcedon but are nevertheless heretical. What was at issue in Gnostic understandings? In part, the creator had created an always-already Fallen world. Salvation, therefore, is being removed out of the world itself. In other words, the Fall was ontological, part of the make-up of embodied existence. This is why I feel that Tillich’s understanding, partly based on the alienation that emerges out of the natural distinction between persons as they grow, is heretical unless part of a wider narrative, as the Fall here is ontological, a Heideggerian ‘thrownness’ into Fallenness. Salvation, therefore, is about overcoming that natural Fallenness (Tillich) or accepting it (Heidegger). Some interpretations of the Fall are useful but also need to be part of a wider account. These often run into the same problem as Girard: is the Fall simply the outworking of natural human potentialities given by evolution? One can consider Moltmann’s The Coming of God in this vein, where his Noahic version based on the emergence of oppressive violence can be once more considered as the continuation of evolutionary dynamics in a civilisational mode. If this is the case, it is not strictly correct to use the word ‘Fallen’ for the human condition (which indicates matters could be otherwise). 

To repeat: salvation here is about accepting or overcoming natural fallenness. The former can be summed up in the words of Michael Tippett’s Jungian oratorio, Child of our Time: ‘I must know my shadow and my light, and then at last be made whole’. The latter needs a different approach. Here, salvation is to be lifted out of our tragic existence away from the lower levels of material reality towards some higher form of embodiment. Christ came not so much to ‘redeem’, but rather to raise our humanity to higher and greater levels of existence, to begin or accelerate the march of The Great Progression. The Spirit could be considered the one who represses our evolutionarily developed natural instincts of based materiality and guides our progression to a greater and more perfect Law. 

Each age has its own progression into this greater Law. For example, ours could be Intersectional Theory. We must therefore turn to the elect few who have been gifted with this insight by the Christ into the true, higher structures of reality. These are the ones who receive the new revelations. They have many names, but I have chosen upon one: the Western Liberal Intelligentsia. Those who do not follow this enlightened elect can be dismissed as the reprobate, bound to the lower levels of material reality. And it is vital that the chosen incarnate pathway of this election come through the Western Enlightenment tradition, either in its modern or postmodern form. Other traditions throughout the world are praised when they are in harmony with this tradition, like little lights. But woe unto those who do not harmonise with the great progression! Woe unto those who hold to older ideas! Woe unto the reprobate who do not keep up with The Great Progression! Theirs is the greatest blasphemy, for they should know the true revelation but have turned away unto their own lusts. 

Sin, the fall, and culture

The nod towards Gnosticism is deliberate here. (Its why I cannot help but consider Teilhard de Chardin’s system as ‘horizontally Gnostic’ as opposed to a ‘vertically’—that is, the separation from Fallen embodied existence is stretched out across time as opposed to the hierarchical levels of the Gnostic cosmogony). And although this is a caricatured version, there are elements of this argument throughout Bell’s book. It’s why I would argue that despite his homage to the doctrine of the Fall his argument does not need it. Furthermore, such a narrative pattern of progressive revelation outlined above explains the paradox of someone advocating Intersectional Theory whilst simultaneously being blithely dismissive and scathing towards the views of most of the poorest Christians throughout the world. 

It also explains why in Queer Holiness the Spirit’s guidance becomes identified with the Western intelligentsia’s cultural direction. If revelation is progressive, moving from base materiality to higher levels of embodied existence, then there is very little to separate revelation from culture. In that Bell (like me to a lesser extent) is a member of this Elect group, it is no accident that in this presentation revelation seems to happen through this group. In the previous section of this review, I noted that Bell claimed Scriptural perspicuity for parts of Scripture (such as the absence of divine blessing for the subjugation of women and coercive sexual behaviour). Unsurprisingly, these supposed moments of perspicuity are also places of ethical perspicuity amongst the Western intelligentsia. And perspicuity is the word here: for the contemporary Western Intelligentsia, whereas matters of belief (like Incarnation and Trinity) are adiaphora (‘things indifferent’), matters of ethics, and sexual ethics in particular, are first-order matters. To be considered above reproach in such circles, one has to agree. 

Like with Second Reich Germany, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the best of the culture and Christianity. As I wrote in Part I, ‘that culture is the incarnational stream through which the Spirit makes revelation concrete.’ The Elect become the cultural drivers of that particular culture; other, non-elect cultures which are not in harmony with the Elect (African, Asian, traditional Western) become the people of darkness which must be ‘stamped’ upon—to quote Bell. When Bell writes, ‘Yet the doctrine of the Fall does not inevitably lead to our viewing creation as entirely disordered—it simply calls us to discern carefully where the Spirit is working’ (30), a Marxist hermeneutic of suspicion is not out of order. 

This is perhaps why we see Bell so emphasising the need for cultural acceptance of Christianity. In his critique of Side B Christians, he writes, ‘for those outside of church circles, this position can certainly feel quite bizarre’ (99). But surely Christianity should be, to a certain extent, bizarre? The question that matters is which peculiarity we choose to emphasise. Wearing robes (which I do) is a cross on which many an Anglican would die, for example. Yet this bizarre practice alienates many people from Church life. Does that mean we should change? Some say yes, some say no. But although how society considers us is important (otherwise we ignore Romans 13), it is not the test of Christian faithfulness. Another example: earlier, Bell wrote, ‘to be in a position where the Church and wider society glare at each other across a river of incomprehension is a travesty’ (31). Is society’s incomprehension at the Church a travesty, something which the Church needs to correct? Were Christians fed to the lions at fault for not making offerings to the Emperor and thereby causing the glare of societal incomprehension and offence? Or is it the case that there are occasions when, as Jesus said, because he was hated, so will we be? 

Relativising Scripture

We have seen how Bell has relativised the importance of the Scriptures: despite his statements to the contrary, his argument functionally works on the inferiority of the Scriptures on the issue of sexuality (and therefore can be in principle a method applied to any dogmatic or ethical loci). Furthermore, we have seen how due to an unthought-through approach to the Fall, he has tended towards a horizontal (rather than vertical) Gnostic position, which ends up sacralising particular trends within contemporary Western ethical thinking and cultural viewpoints. This causes Christianity to be identified with the ethical trends of that culture’s Intelligentsia (as with German Second Reich thinking). The function of Scripture is relativised to be in harmony with these culture trends. Indeed, to paraphrase George Tyrrell’s famous critique of Harnack’s quest for the historical Jesus, ‘The Scripture that Bell sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Conservative darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Anglican face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.’

Nevertheless, whilst the deconstructive approach I have taken so far in Parts II and III towards Bell’s text may expose particular hidden and latent power dynamics, and thereby may have some therapeutic benefit for the conservative reader, our task is not finished. Though Bell’s own response to his question is lacking, he still requires a reasoned response: ‘Why? Why did God allow this to happen?’ which I will address in Part IV.

Joshua Penduck

Joshua Penduck is the Rector of Newcastle-under-Lyme, St Giles with St Thomas, Butterton, in the Diocese of Lichfield. Prior to ordination he was a composer and has written music for the LSO, BCMG and Orkest de Ereprijs. He is married to Shelley, who is also an Anglican minister in Stoke-on-Trent.

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

Leave a comment