Like all mainline denominations, my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, is currently doing some soul searching on the issue of homosexuality. I want to briefly reply to an article posted on the publication of the PCC, the Presbyterian Record. This article is by David Harris, and suggests that, after all, the opposing sides to this debate are perhaps making compatible perspectives into mutually exclusive ones unnecessarily:
If you’ve been following some of the theological articles in the Record over the past several years, you’ll have noticed that Christianity seems to be reforming into two overarching worldviews.
One worldview frames life’s big questions—the ones referred to in our cover story—from the perspective of what one ought to do: what is the right action in any given circumstance.
This group tends to be concerned with morals. Its members see the world and the choices we face in sharp contrast: more right and wrong than contextual. Requiring people to take a stand on issues. Perhaps we can even venture to say they are more generally anxious about life and worried that people will be misled by wrong – headed teaching.
The second overarching approach focuses on discerning how to be good, making community and relationships paramount. Instead of seeking proper decisions in a book—even a holy book—practical decisions will emerge. Scripture is read more thematically, in a sweeping style, and the historical context of a particular passage is of crucial importance in interpretation.
If we step back and review the letters to the editor in this magazine over the same period, we generally find the debates in the church and religion framed in terms of conservative and liberal.
Each side thinks the other is at best misguided, perhaps even profoundly wrong and misinterprets scripture. There tends to be a fair bit of each side yelling at the other.
But what if we could lay these distinctions aside? What if we are able to agree that the other side is not wrong, but is merely looking at the world through a completely different set of lenses and bringing a completely different set of concerns?
Is it possible, I wonder, if we could do the same thing in the faith arena? Instead of demonizing the other side, we might agree that everyone is trying to conform to God’s will, just in different ways, and so with different outcomes.
Both [the humanity-focused and divinity-focused Gospels] are true, but profoundly different. So too are these two overarching worldviews that are concerned with thinking about our faith.
This is not a helpful way of understanding the current disagreements in the PCC, and other mainline denominations. There are two reasons for this:
1) It is ultimately impossible to have a vision of what is right and wrong which does not imply a vision about what is good for human flourishing, nor vice versa. So this cannot be the source of the difference, if we want to interpret both sides charitably to be rational in their views. Rather, there must be two different visions of what is right/good.
2) It is in fact not true that both sides can be right on the issue in the background of this post, homosexuality, nor on the most fundamental issue involved, the location and content of revelation. It’s not helpful to reaching the ultimate goal of unity in truth to pretend that they could both be right. The reason both sides cannot be right is because the differences are not analogous to those in the gospels: the differences between the gospels are real but complementary. This is not the case with the differences on ethics and theological method involved in contemporary debates.
It is also not helpful to suggest that the conservatives don’t care about the historical contexts of passages; of course, what conservatives mean by respecting that context, and what liberals mean by it, are different things. Nevertheless, presenting the conservative side as if they do not respect history is simply misrepresentation, and that is something that ought to be avoided by all sides of this debate, if the church ever hopes to resolve it.