Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Response to THE VIOLENCE OF A HEARTLESS THEOLOGY



I am either an exceptionally honest person who has the ability to see both sides of an issue or I'm without principles. Depends on who you talk to. Those who would divide my church into evil heartless legalists and caring understanding, nurturing, accepting Christians, have a tendency to disallow agreeing with anything on the opposite side of the conservative/liberal wall. Jesus, if you remember, had just that sort of church to deal with at his first coming. Pharisees were conservatives, Sadducees were liberals. The Scribes were like the news media. Their job was to write things down and they were probably just as biased as today's news media.

I found my self agreeing with one article in Adventist Today and disagreeing with another. That's probably a sign that either Adventist Today is unbiased or that I am. One of us must be because I'm a conservative and I'm not supposed to agree with articles of either sort. The first article concerned the rise of authoritarianism in the church leadership (which I'm against) and the other concerned how mean it was not to accept homosexuality as okey dokey (which I'm also against). Though I am against both things, in once case I agreed with the author. In the other I did not.

I've spoken plenty in regard to the first issue. As to the second, I have kept fairly low key. The article entitled "The Violence of a Heartless Theology" by Alicia Johnston appeared in Adventist Today recently. It is a heart-tugging appeal to Adventists to accept the sexuality of Ms. Johnston and others like her. To not "accept" her sexuality, she posits is heartless and cruel and leads to suicide and other negative consequences to people who are members of what progressives and feminist studies professors today call "persons with non sys-normative gender identity".

There are some serious logical fallacies present in Ms. Johnston's argument. I'll try and address them with kindness and understanding. I have friends who struggle with gender identity and, contrary to the way my line of thought is portrayed in the Adventist Today piece, I do care about their feelings and do not wish to cause them unnecessary pain. Their struggle is a real one and deserves our understanding and sympathy.
  1. Begging the Question - In the article Johnston states, "Devaluation of feelings is part of a particular approach to theology and religion." She goes on to claim this "approach" is heartless, cruel and that such an approach is heartless and that scripture gives equal weight to reason and feelings (or spirituality as she calls it). This talking point assumes that feelings and reason are somehow equal in importance to the practice of Christianity. I would argue that we are born with instincts and that through experience and the process of making choices we reason out how we feel about things. More on the neuroscience behind that idea later. At this point I'd like to point out that the argument is a setup to an either/or question which is another logical fallacy (the false dichotomy). Our position on gender identity is not a question of whether or not we accept or reject the value of feelings in the Christian life, though the original statement would try to make it so.
  2. Straw Man Fallacy - Ms. Johnston next makes arguments to support her statement that "It’s common to treat theology like arithmetic and people like CPUs." She backs this up with statements about what "they" think or believe, that is people who believe homosexual behavior is a sin. She sets this mythical "they" up so she can knock them down for their cold-heartedness. This type of magical thinking allows one to assume that if one or two people say something unkind to you, everybody else is thinking it. Unless Ms. Johnston has had a look at the Book of Life, she cannot make such a statement that again sets up a false dichotomy that "they" treat theology like arithmetic and people like computers. You either accept her argument that feelings are as important as reason or you are a cold heartless automaton (made of straw in this case).
  3. Post Hoc/False Cause - Ms Johnston next claims that since "Jesus said that you can tell whether a tree is good or bad by looking at its fruit" then believing that same-sex relationships and transgender identity are sinful proves the tree of your opinion is a bad tree. She then goes about blaming all sorts of statistics related to homosexual and transgenders is caused simply by people not "accepting" a person's alternate sexuality. She blissfully ignores evidence that there might well be a mental disorder behind these consequences that has little or nothing to do with one's acceptance. If I were to claim, for instance, that if we all just "accept" people with bipolar disorder then the problem would be solved, I'd be barking mad. I have two family members with bipolar and accept them and love them both without reservation. One is in prison due to poor choices he made while manic and off his meds. I got three hours of sleep last night because I was up with the other one because she was having a panic attack. It had nothing to do with "acceptance". It has everything to do with having a mental disorder with a physical basis. Mental illness cannot be cured by everybody approving of your sexual lifestyle. Significantly, however, the LGBTQ community has gotten their condition removed from the American Psychological Asssociation's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, effectively halting research into treatment modalities. In essence, the only thing a therapist can do for a person who is homosexual or transsexual or whatever is to tell him to go and have sex with someone. This is quite the opposite of what Jesus told the woman caught in adultery. I'm sure she felt like having sex with the guy she was caught with. Jesus in his compassion forgave her and rebuked her accusers, but, significantly, Jesus did NOT say, "Go and commit adultery some more and feel better about it."  He was very definite that she should act against her very basic instincts and stop doing what she was doing.  In other words, her feelings weren't the issue. It was her choices.
  4. The Bandwagon Fallacy - The statistics she uses to "prove" her bad fruit/bad tree misapplied analogy. The analogy is false since the fruit she is talking about may not be coming from the theological tree she is attacking. She lists suicide rates and homelessness and apologies by conversion therapy groups as evidence that rejecting the Biblical position that homosexual and other nonsysnormative (i.e. deviant) behaviors are sin is the only way to prove you are a good tree and not a bad one.
  5. The Hasty Generalization - Like claims that only religions start wars, the article cites friends who were told that their "sexuality" was a sin then wanted to commit suicide as evidence that this is true across the board. First of all, I know of few people who claim that feelings are a sin. Otherwise every time a sysgender normal guy drove past a billboard with a woman in a bikini on it, he commits a mortal and unforgivable sin. Few Christians think that, although some loud ones admittedly do. It's not the feelings it's the behavior that is at issue and yet many many persons in favor of striking non-heterosexual behavior off the list o' sins seems to make their argument assuming that most people despise gay people. It's just not so anymore than we despise divorcees and adulterers. We still believe that the commandment about being loyal to your spouse is still one you should not violate, we do offer forgiveness and reconciliation. What we do not do is say, "Go and do it again so you'll feel better."
  6. The Non Sequiter - Then there's this statement. "God loves the world deeply, forgives us for our failures to love, and teaches us how to love completely and fully. The fruits of affirming theology certainly are full of love and life. The fruits of non-affirming theology bring harm and suffering."  Sounds great doesn't it? But again it goes back and again creates a straw man built onto a false dichotomy swirled up in a bandwagon fallacy. She leaves out a crucial bit. God does love the world deeply. He sent His Son to die for the world. He does forgive us for our failures and teaches us how to love completely and fully. That's where Ms. Johnston would like to stop, but that's not all God does. He then tells us to "Go and sin no more," and helps us learn to obey. No where does God tell us to obey our feelings. Quite the contrary. He tells us to obey the law. He forgives us when we try and fail, but nowhere have I found a place in scripture where he tells us we can go on sinning if we feel like it, nor does he scratch out any commandments for us because we don't like them.
  7. Begging the question (again) - Ms Johnston finally makes this pronouncement about those who believe homosexual behavior is a sin.  "It’s easy not to involve yourself with those whose lives you judge to be unworthy of the blessings of marriage and church membership." This assumes that the people she is chiding (a group which includes me), do, in fact, judge people who struggle with homosexual feelings to be unworthy of the blessings of marriage and church membership. The truth is, it is most often the person who is gay or transgender who most often rejects church membership or the blessings of marriage of the sort the church offers.

To demand that a church reject it's own beliefs in order to accommodate your personal sins so that you don't have to feel guilty about doing them, is really not fair. If I am a child abuser and see nothing wrong with knocking my kids around, should I demand the church make me a board member? If I like gambling, should I demand the church allow me to set up a floating crap game in the youth department? If I want to attend church in the nude, who am I hurting? Adam and Eve started out naked after all. Our bodies are beautiful. Your prejudice against undressed people hurts my feelings and makes me want to commit suicide. Must the church accommodate.

Jesus offers a place in his kingdom based on two basic requirements - that we love Him and keep his commandments. He even offers to help us keep those commandments by changing our hearts. I can tell you that I didn't "feel" like changing some of my bad habits. Some I'm still working on. I'm heterosexual. I have those kinds of feelings too. Unfortunately, due to health issues, that aspect of my life with my wife has been curtailed severely. I feel like having sex, but can't because it would harm my partner. One can live without it. It's not easy, but having sex is not required to be a fulfilled person. Remember Paul said he had a "thorn in the side" that he was forced to live with. One wonders if that "thorn" was related to his lifelong celibacy. I think Paul showed us how to deal with urges to do things scripture tells us not to do. Peter struggled with his lifelong prejudice against Gentiles. God and the Apostle Paul both reprimanded him. God punished David for his adultery. It didn't matter that David had seen Bathsheba naked and had an "urge". God forgave him horrible things and he submitted. Despite David's struggles with sin, God called David a man after his own heart. That was because David never gave up the struggle.

As to the feeling vs. reason issue, recent advances in psychology and neuroscience have shown that the brain is set up so that if we think out a thing or repeatedly do a thing enough times, we train our feelings to recognize such thoughts or actions as "right". It's the same for physical skills. Swing a baseball bat enough times and you'll come to recognize a good swing by how right it feels when you make one. Jesus understood the human mind and how it can be trained. I've been a Christian for 46 years and studied Scripture daily. I've struggled with old "urges" and behaviors for many years. All these years later, I find that things that appealed to me back in the 70s, no longer whole any appeal for me today. Things feel "wrong" now that once felt natural. It took more than four decades for God to teach me to "do justice" and to "love mercy" and to "walk humbly with my God." I'm not all the way there yet, but it does get easier with time and practice.

I've never considered demanding that the church "accept" my bad language or my short temper. Both things "felt" right because in my youth, before I met Christ, I practiced both a lot and they became natural. Jesus asked me to give up those things and because I love Him and because He has forgiven me my sins, I want to obey Him and please Him. Sin is sin and a thing to be overcome with his help. He will put a new heart and mind in you, but it may take some time. Heart transplants and Neurosurgery are very delicate things. Just because it doesn't happen instantaneously, doesn't mean that it won't. I know many individuals who struggle with homosexuality and have overcome it. It's slow and they get support from their straight friends in the church.

Those who reject people who have "feelings" that betray them into sin are not unique because they are gay. Everyone struggles with impulses to sin. Homosexual lust is not  greater or lesser a sin than heterosexual lust or greed for money or power. It's all one and the same and God can help you overcome your particular sins whatever they are.

And we don't have to change the rules; we only must allow God to change ourselves. Ms Johnston was right about one thing. God does love us and forgives our sins and wants to produce "good fruit". He also wants give us the power to obey and even changes our hearts for us. That seems to be the thing missing from Ms Johnston's argument.

© 2017 by Tom King





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