Sex and the Single Savior: On Reading the Biblical Text, Part 5

In this post I want to discuss what I think is the most challenging and interesting facet of Dale Martin's Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation.

i. Moral Wild Cards
Martin's main concerns about readings of the text, and this is driven by his perspective as a gay Christian, are primarily ethical in nature. Martin minces no words on this point (p. 16): "In these essays I outline my belief that foundationalism is ethically dangerous. Foundationalism often leads to unethical practices because it masks the very real interpretative agency of the human interpreter and thus allows the interpreter to avoid responsibility for the truth, goodness, morality, and social effect of her or his interpretation."

Let's read those words again: "Foundationalism is ethically dangerous. Foundationalism often leads to unethical practices because it masks the very real interpretative agency of the human interpreter and thus allows the interpreter to avoid responsibility for the truth, goodness, morality, and social effect of her or his interpretation."

For example, from the first post in this series (p. 2): "One regularly comes across a certain tone in debates about Christian ethics, a tone by which one or both parties in the debate seem to say, 'Don't blame me! I'm not opposed to gay people (or the ordination of women, or name your issue). The Bible is. 'The Bible tells us...' Such people never admit that the Bible doesn't actually talk. They do not acknowledge their own interpretive processes by which they have arrived at what they think the Bible 'says.' People throughout history, therefore, have committed grave ethical offenses--supporting slavery, oppressing women, fighting unjust wars, killing, torturing, and harming their fellow human beings--under the cover of 'the Bible says.' As long as the text itself is thought to provide its own interpretation or to constrain or direct its own meaning, the ethical and political responsibility of interpreters can be masked, denied, or slighted. Immoral interpretations can be--and have been--blamed on the text rather than the interpreter."

Let me try to summarize Martin's concerns and position:

What Martin is saying is that once a person takes, via some intentional or unarticulated foundationalist method, a reading of Scripture to be The Word of God, that person becomes a moral wild card. That person becomes essentially unaccountable (in his own mind) for his actions or beliefs. When questioned, the person can point to his reading of the text as authorizing. He can't be blamed. Blame God if you must, but he's just the innocent messenger.

I agree with Martin that this stance of being a moral wild card, the innocent messenger, is dangerous. Why? Because the person becomes hermetically sealed off from critique and dialogue, important ethical and spiritual correctives.

For example, go to this website (be forewarned, it is hateful). Notice how scripture is used at the very top of the webpage. That is, the Bible (Note: Not a reading of the Bible!) is taken to be authorizing all the content of the site. Once this reading of Leviticus is adopted the group becomes the innocent and persecuted messenger. They also become moral wild cards, sealed off from civic and ecclesial discourse. You got a problem with them? Too bad. You can take it up with the Almighty. Look at the top of the website you idiot.

Now this is an extreme example, but the moral wild card is found in just about every church on just about every issue.

ii. The Stance of Love
So how should we interpret Scripture? If foundationalism is flawed or morally dangerous how are we to adjudicated between readings of Scripture? Is any reading allowed?

In Sex and the Single Savior Martin does, in the end, offer a hermeneutic and a means for adjudication. It is a hermeneutic of love.

Martin takes his cue from Augustine: "Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understand the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all." (Christian Doctrine 1.35.40)

Martin's analysis of Augustine is clear (p. 49): "By this light, any interpretation of Scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable...[I]n the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love. To people who say this is too simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. 'Love' will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion either--as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love. But rather than expecting an answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism of modernist historicism. We ask the question that must be asked, 'What is the loving thing to do?'"

Later in the book Martin revisits this theme (p. 169): "I urge not that we assume that love will provide a reliable foundation for knowledge but that we nonetheless keep the requirements of love of neighbor foremost in our interpretation of Scripture. We should consider, for example, love to be a necessary criterion (a minimum) when defending an interpretations of Scripture even if it cannot be a sufficient condition that will guarantee ethical interpretation."

Martin suggests that we take a "stance" of love toward the interpretation of Scripture (p. 169): "We are always to be on our guard that our interpretations of Scripture do not harm but actively promote what is truly good for our neighbor. Whether an interpretation is finally Christian will still not be predictable ahead of time, but one central test by which we attempt to make that determination, a test for the Christian ethical value of an interpretation, will be more than anything whether it promotes the love of the other. Not a secure foundation for knowledge, by any means, but certainly a much needed attitude: the 'stance of love.'"

iii. Polls and Discussion
To start some conversation, two polls. Sorry for the simplifications, but we'll use forced choice formats for the polls. But feel free to nuance in the comments.

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17 thoughts on “Sex and the Single Savior: On Reading the Biblical Text, Part 5”

  1. I agree that this is a great insight and I hate arguing with anyone who has a strong foundationalist view of Scripture, because there are not equal grounds for debate. Even when you also make appeals to scripture it simply isn't possible to get past that impervious refusal to accept their own moral agency. So frustrating.

  2. Even with a hermeneutic of love many Christians will stay save homosexuality is wrong. Ex: I love this person as my Christian brother/sister so even though it may hurt them and be hard for them in the end they will be better off. And this view of tough love is sometimes correct. For instance, it hurts to quit a drug or substance addiction, but in the end the hurt is often worth it. So in the end it still comes down to what you believe when you enter the discussion. If you believe homosexuality is wrong, then you'll still believe that using love as your hermeneutic.

  3. I really wanted to disagree with the second statement, but I couldn't.

    I wanted to allow the possibility that, within a particular community, an interpretation that causes harm might be the "right" interpretation, but I find myself incapable of calling any such interpretation "right". "Consistent", perhaps, but not "right".

  4. Matthew, maybe it depends on your definition of harm. I wanted to agree with the statement, but I couldn't because I think sometimes people classify short term pain as harm even though short term pain is often beneficial in the long run.

  5. To a certain extent (well, a large extent), the questions are ridiculous. But I like the first question as it makes us confront the ethics of reading. And I like the second as it forces us to consider (if just in our own minds) if "the stance of love" should be a Christian's governing hermeneutic.

  6. I have an example of a moral wild card on my blog today. Take a look. He says the very statement "Don't get mad at me, take it up with God." It will also probably make you laugh a little; it is that far-fetched.

    Thanks for this series; it has helped open my eyes even more.

    Josh Linton

  7. This is a very helpful conversation. However, my question is: on what grounds do we (or at least Martin) get to say love is the hermeneutical lens through which we read the text. Why love? Why not something else?

  8. Why love? Well, there is one obvious precedent.

    In 1 Corinthians Paul alights on love (agape) as the effective corrective to all the behaviours of the Corinthian Christians that he finds objectionable, and expounds on it in chapter 13.

    Although the content of the faith may at this stage have been oral, the Christians of Corinth were, like any faith community, 'reading' and interpreting the tradition. As far as Paul was concerned, they were taking liberties with the good news received from him. ('All things are permissable' [even incest!], 'There is no resurrection of the dead', etc.) They were also importing their social conventions into the Christian community and worship assembly (Lord's Supper) in a way that showed contempt for the body and blood of Christ.

    All this is well known. But the point in relation to this post is that Paul calls them back to the true teaching by means of one key concept: love. And the enduring popularity of this passage is tribute to the fact that he has a good point.


  9. "God is love" seems to be a fairly strong statement of identity, but love is an incomplete hermeneutic. As many of you have pointed out, who gets to define what love is? We would need an additional hermeneutic to discern what love really means/implies in the biblical text. Two people can read the command "love you neighbor" and have very different sensibilities about what that would look like.

    But I agree with Martin that I'd rather start with this question (i.e., What is love?) than with some of the other starting places where people begin.

    I'd also say that we, as Christian community, should always be wary of applying the label "love" to ourselves. We should never say "We are a loving community" or "I am acting in a loving way." We don't get to decide such things. Those labels must be applied by those on the receiving end of our actions. If people call us loving, fantastic. But it's their call. Not ours.

    BTW, the polling is really skewed. I have some very liberal readers. Am I the only conservative voice among us!

  10. I am going to push this a bit more because I think this is an important discussion.
    The question is whether a "stance of love" should be a governing principle for reading Scripture and thus determine whether or not a reading is "good." I want to push it further and examine why we pick "love" to be the lens because the factors that made "love" the "stance" are the real grounds for making claims about Scripture/ethics/truth. In other words, we cannot quote verses from Scripture about love to show that love is the best stance because that is a circular argument. So, if love is the hermeneutical lens, then we must substantiate it in some other way (i.e., from experience, from reason, personal preference, etc.). Thus, the factors (biological, psychological, philosophical, etc.) that make us pick love are the real governing principles for reading Scripture.
    This is what I am ultimately trying to say: If ethics ultimately determine the best reading of Scripture, then what stops Nietzche's view of ethics from becoming the hermeneutical lens?

  11. Richard,

    It seems to me that when Martin states "Foundationalism is ethically dangerous" and "Any interpretation of Scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation" that he is being foundational. Such statements absolutize a position and, at least potentially, demonize those who disagree. They also "authorize" in the same sense that Biblical literalism authorizes.

    All this is very tricky to navigate, depending on whether one acknowledges Aristotle's law of contradiction. Without getting into the nuances of Wittengenstein and Husserl, language is full of stated and implied absolutes by which we seek reality and upon which we base our lives.

    When Martin and the most fundamental foundationalist reads the Biblical passage which "says" that Jesus is "the lion of of the tribe of Judah," neither believes that Jesus is an actual lion. They may be nuanced differently in their take. But both agree that he has leonine qualities. At bottom, we are all absolutists, foundationalists. Each of us "cherry picks" our absolutes and must rely on others to keep us honest. Our problem is that we have a hard time listening. But if we listen closely we might hear that all of us are invited to the Feast.


    George C.

  12. Derran,
    Thus, the factors (biological, psychological, philosophical, etc.) that make us pick love are the real governing principles for reading Scripture.

    This is anticipating my next post, but your quote here is exactly what Martin is suggesting: Human experience (and not the text) provides the hermeneutical constraints on the reading. This may just back up the problem to ethics, but I think Martin likes that conversation better than the historical-critical conversation. True, how does one deal with Nietzsche specter? Can we have ethics without God?

    In the end, Martin hands off that question.

    I think you are right, everyone grounds out somewhere. Post-modernity, in rejecting meta-narratives, replaces these with the truth claim that there is no meta-narrative. Which is, ironically, a meta-narrative.

  13. Richard,

    The reality is that most of us most of the time behave, to use Parker Palmer's pregnant description, as "functional atheists." That is, we act as though God presence and belief in God doesn't matter. I say that only as a partial description of our behavior because a centuries-long developed Christian ethic has informs our "post-modernity."

    What Nietzsche--a Lutheran pastor's son--decried was that "scientific" truth-seeking had murdered the historical Christian God which culturally grounded the West's ethics. Without that Ground being real in the lives of people, they (or the powerful) would have to develop their own ethic from their own perspective. Voila! The ironic no meta-narrative stance of post-modernity.

    But even here there is hope, the hope of doubt and chaos and uncertainty which can be transformed into mystery. We can, in the words of Rita Charon, "hail doubts not as affronts to one's power but as mysteries to behold."


    George C.

  14. ...The reality is that most of us most of the time behave, to use Parker Palmer's pregnant description, as "functional atheists."...

    Who are you calling functional and why the name calling?

    I like the way the discussion is going and if taken to its logical conclusion, yes we humans have evolved a moral capacity. It's how we can function in our interactions with each other considering that we are social creatures.
    Rick T.

  15. Rick,

    Yipes and mea culpa! Didn't mean to denigrate any dysfunctional atheists.

    Even real rotters and reprobates can do well--honor among thieves and all that. But prophets stand outside of social convention when they challenge their society. They risk martydom and be sacrificed for the presummed "greater good."

    Great post, Richard, and glowing comments.


    George C.

  16. When a scientist constructs a hypothesis and a means to test it, doesn't that constitute at least an attempt to build on a foundationalist perspective? If so, the view that "Foundationalism is ethically dangerous" implies that trying to base ethics on scientific understanding is dangerous. Perhaps so, but what about wanting to have a fact based understanding of the world in order to love more effectively?

    I think that the NT does place a higher value on love than knowledge or "being right," and accordingly voted "Agree" to "foundationalism's dangerous." But, of course, we're asking about which stance is more ethically right here, presumably in the sense of "more true to ethics." So I'll agree with Richard that "To a certain extent...the questions are ridiculous."

    On the second question I was in the minority, disagreeing with the view that any scriptural interpretation that harms people cannot be right. The embedded equivocation used in this question (is "right interpretation" to be read as "morally right" or or "right" in the sense of "true interpretation"?) again makes it difficult to appraise. But my objection to an ethical prohibition on all harm is that the world does not present "win-win" ethical situations to us all of the time. Sometimes sacrifice is unavoidable, and I think that the core Christian symbol and message is precisely that loving sacrifice for others is sometimes necessary in order to do the right (loving) thing. (I will assume that this is obvious, once stated.)

    Therefore, a prohibition on all harm to "people" is a prohibition on Christianity's core message.

    Now, I think that Rihard--Martin?--really means "harm to others" rather than harm to anyone in the category "people," but that's not how the question was posed... I chose to be a strict literalist here--but only on the assumption that the loving thing to do on this occasion is to pursue the literal truth. (I'm not being cute--this is the "Experimental Theology" blog!)

    Perhaps the only value of these words is that they illustrate how very difficult the problem of interpretation is...

    Thanks for another great post!



  17. Richard,

    I confess to not having read all this as thoroughly as it deserves, but in what I have read, I haven't found a definition of foundationalism. So I'd really like to know what we mean by it.

    I only know the term from epistemology discussions. If I understand it right (i.e. foundationalism vs. coherentism), well, I think strong foundationalism is not viable, but I'm not sure we can get anywhere without some foundationalism... for example, how do we know oppression is bad?

    Anyway, clearing up what we mean would be really useful. Again, if I missed somewhere where you defined it or cited a definition, please forgive me.


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