Collect

Collect for the Ascension

Grant, we beseech thee, Almight God: that like as we do believe thy Only Begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

An Analysis of the Nashville Statement

A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the world we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine


—William Blake, Auguries of Innocence


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The Nashville Statement on a Christian view of sexuality has provoked a lot of reaction, not only from those who think we should revise that view, but among traditionalists themselves. I don’t consider myself beholden to it—the assertions of a group of men who don’t even claim the authority that I believe the Catholic Church really possesses will, inevitably, be of only so much value to me. But it’s caused enough of a ruckus among my friends and allies that I want to go through it.




I agree with a good deal of it, and for this reason I won’t spend much time on my agreements, since it’d unreasonably inflate this post. My difficulties with it, while fewer, are serious, and they begin in the preamble, with this passage:


Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences.


No Christian, I think, need cavil at the assertion that mankind generally and man and woman in particular are icons of God’s glory. However—this is where the connotations get ticklish—it doesn’t follow from this either that there are no grey areas between male and female, or that any felt uncertainty or ambiguity in one’s own gender identity is an attempt to substitute our preferences for God’s plan. A vocation to celibacy is not an assertion of personal autonomy against God’s design for sex; being nearsighted is not an assertion of personal autonomy against God’s design for eyes. The Nashville Statement appears to be saying that any experience of gender dysphoria is either willful rebellion, or a disposition to it—and I don’t believe that that’s borne out by Scripture or the tradition of Christendom.


The vexed term identity comes up here too, which is no surprise. Generally, when I hear LGBT people use it, it’s a shorthand for something like ‘part of my story as a person’; whereas when I hear Christians use it, it’s a shorthand for ‘intrinsic, ontological attribute.’ Either usage could be defended, but it’s worth noting that, to the extent that either group insists on reading its own habitual meaning into the texts of the other group, there’s going to be a lot of misunderstanding, hurt, and anger. (For what it’s worth, I prefer using identity in the ‘story’ sense, partly because it seems to be more common.)


Some of the same implicit problems emerge a little further on in the preamble:


Our true identity, as male and female persons, is given by God. It is not only foolish, but hopeless, to try to make ourselves what God did not create us to be.


I don’t know about hopeless; God didn’t create us to be sinners, but we’ve managed that with remarkable efficiency. And speaking of which—on what grounds do we know that sin, which (as I’m certain the framers of the Nashville Statement would agree) affects us so deeply, can’t introduce a real discord into the relations between body, brain, and soul? There’s some evidence that trans experience is correlated to differences in the brain structure of the trans person, which may suggest that assertions that their body doesn’t match their identity reflect the reality of gender vis-√†-vis the brain. And whether it’s a result of the Fall or not, we do know that there are various degrees and kinds of what are called intersex conditions: there are people who exhibit secondary and even primary characteristics of both sexes, or who have the phenotype1 of one sex with the DNA and sex organs of the other.2 We need not pretend that hard cases do away with the existence of the basic pattern; but we cannot and must not pretend either that the hard cases do not matter or do not exist. It goes far beyond Scripture to do so, and it’s a gross disservice to those who do find themselves, through no choice of their own, in between the normal categories.




Moving on to the content, I more or less agree with Article I, though its omission of divorce from the denial is a little sketchy. Of course, the evangelical world is very much divided about what constitutes proper grounds for divorce—though, if as the Statement says, the marriage covenant represents Christ and the Church, then Charles Williams’ dictum springs to mind: Adultery is bad morals, but divorce is bad metaphysics. I would also point out the incredible deadness of conscience about divorce in Protestant circles (I’d say evangelical, but that would seem to unfairly exculpate mainline Protestants, who are if anything still more cavalier about the austere view of divorce presented in the Gospels); in the context of a prophetic rebuke to the surrounding culture, forwardness about one’s own sins—especially when they are so topical—is badly needed, both for the world and for the church.


With Article II, I have one important difference. The affirmation states that God requires ‘chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.’ This, while true, is again misleading: God requires chastity of spouses toward one another as well, because chastity isn’t synonymous with abstinence from sex. It’s perfectly possible to be unchaste with one’s spouse, by engaging in sex that’s abusive, or objectifying, or closed to life, or merely excessive.3


Articles III and IV seem basically fine, but Article V gets difficult again. The text:


We affirm that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.
We deny that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.


The problem being, Why?




I don’t think it’s reading things into the document to say that this affirmation and denial are ‘aimed at’ transgender folks. And I dare say most transgender Christians would agree—if they wouldn’t, I’m sure I’ll be corrected—that our bodies, in both genes and phenotype, are integral to God’s design, and that male and female sex are holy and precious images of the Lord. But if, as mentioned above in discussing the preamble, we know that genetics and phenotype can be out of alignment or ambiguous, then what can the denial here mean? and what place can intersex people occupy in churches that, apparently, deny their existence?4 Scripture says that God made man male and female, and (though Scripture does not say this in so many words) it’s reasonable to read it as seeing the two sexes as peculiar images of God’s character, which is why their differences are metaphysically real and spiritually valuable, rather than only socially constructed or irrelevant to an advanced age. But as St Paul says that neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, for as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman, but all things of God—is it really so inconceivable that certain people, not merely in their tastes but in the very structure of their bodies, are icons of the unity and interdependence of the sexes, rather than of their distinction and simplicity?


Article VI, which states that those born with a physical disorder of sex development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers, is very right and proper in this context. I’m not sure that it’s adequately supported by or consistent with the other contents of the Nashville Statement; but, credit where credit is due. I certainly had an unusual upbringing, in (I’ve since come to suspect) an enclave of good sense and compassion within the evangelical world; but at any rate in my own experience, I’ve found the actual behavior of evangelicals to be worthy of better beliefs than they often hold.5


With Article VII I start having more explicit problems. The text:


We affirm that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.
We deny that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.




(Just like it says in the Bible: And Moses said unto the people, Also, ye shall not identify as homosexual or transgender, certes: Deuteronomy 22.31.) Now, I’m not certain what the framers of the Nashville Statement mean by self-conception. Like identity, it’s a word that could mean a bunch of different things. If all the framers meant is that sexuality and gender identity aren’t the sole or central aspects of who an LGBT person ontologically is, I could agree; but if, as I suspect, they’re saying that LGBT people shouldn’t consider their sexuality or their perceived6 gender a part of who they are in any sense, then I reject this entirely. I see no reason, Biblical or otherwise, to exclude our sexuality from our sense of who we are: it’s part of our story, and while we aren’t controlled by our stories, they are, well, the story of us. Insisting that being LGBT must be relegated to a footnote is (to me) neither intuitively obvious, nor justified by the pages of Scripture or the tradition of the Church. But even if we took an exclusively negative view of everything other than cisgender heterosexuality: Most gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.


Articles VIII and IX seem again to be fine to me. Article X comes across as dangerously ambiguous, however.


We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.


There are several ways this could be read, but I’m not much satisfied by any of the ones I’ve come up with. Does the phrase essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness mean those who disagree with the Nashville Statement aren’t even Christians? If so, I again totally reject this assertion. I am a Catholic, and my body of doctrine is considerably more demanding than the framers of this document would assent to; not only about sex, but about the Church, sacraments, and authority. Nevertheless I insist that they are Christians, my brethren through baptism. This isn’t because I consider the Real Presence in the Eucharist or the infallibility of the Holy See matters of indifference, but because I don’t consider Christian and wrong incompatible categories.7 But the beliefs about church authority held by the framers and signatories of the Statement, I gather, are mostly of a sola Scriptura nature—to use the convenient summary from the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England: Holy Scripture containenth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, or be thought requisite to salvation.8 The point here being, the Bible has very little to say about homosexuality (five verses)9 or transgenderism (zero verses), so where do you get off making this an indispensable condition of Christianity?


Articles XI, XII, and XIV, again, look fine on the surface of them. Article XIII gives me pause:


We affirm that the grace of God in Christ enables sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions and by divine forbearance to accept the God-ordained link between one’s biological sex and one’s self-conception as male or female.
We deny that the grace of God in Christ sanctions self-conceptions that are at odds with God’s revealed will.


In itself, the denial is not so much a specific doctrinal stance, as a description of what the words God’s revealed will mean. But the affirmation is more problematic. Though I’ve left Calvinism far behind, one of Calvin’s sayings springs to my mind: Where God hath shut his holy mouth, we would be wise to close ours. And—I’m sorry—where has God said that gay or trans identities aren’t a thing? III Corinthians 8.5? IV Concordance 1.16?




I’m concerned about this partly for doctrinal reasons (it may be silly, but even as an ex-Protestant I want and expect more vigorously Scriptural confession from my former compatriots), and partly for personal ones. I’m not trans myself, though I experienced some gender dysphoria as a child; it went away, as dysphoria sometimes does; but for some people, it doesn’t go away, and Article XIII here is dangerously ambiguous about this. It could easily be read in the cruellest sense, that those who continue experiencing gender dysphoria are secretly resisting God’s grace—something I believe we have no right to say. Nor, given the total absence of trans issues from Scripture, is this directly justified by the Bible, and someone who seriously believes that only the Bible is infallible should limit and qualify their beliefs accordingly.


So all in all, I don’t find the Nashville Statement satisfying. And I find it especially lacking in its dealing with trans issues: I feel that it jumps to conclusions that aren’t justified by Scripture, and are inconsistent with what we know of trans identities through biology. One or two of my trans friends have pointed out that, coming so soon after Trump’s order banning trans individuals from the military, it’s also pretty tactlessly timed; and while that doesn’t affect its truth or falsity, it does matter, courtesy being the social form taken by charity. The fact that certain figures like Matt Walsh appear poised to encourage all the same mistakes about trans people that we are barely getting past with gay people is also discouraging.


To any LGBT people, especially trans or genderqueer people, who are reading this: I love you; more importantly, God loves you; and if shit goes pear-shaped for you in this country, I will do what I can to defend and help you. My house is a safe place for you.




To any signatories or sympathizers who are reading this, I hope you’ll reconsider, on Biblical grounds. I don’t think that the word of God really supports the cultural lines that are drawn in this statement, and I think it rushes to judgment on matters that the conscience of Christendom has not yet pronounced on—which, to me as a Catholic, is an important omission. And regardless, I hope and pray that you will take great care to live up to Article VI. I don’t know how much you know about trans people and their lives, but it’s Article VI, rather than any other point, that most people (Christian or not) like to ignore in the way they treat trans people.


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1Phenotype means the visible characteristics of something: e.g., identical twins have identical phenotypes, while fraternal twins will have some differences. Male and female phenotypes would include the literal shape of the genitals as well as of the breasts, the amount and location of body hair, tendencies toward musculature, and so forth.
2One of the better known examples of this is Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome or CAIS. Some people experience some degree of insensitivity to androgens, i.e. hormones like testosterone, which (among other things) prompt the development of male characteristics, like phenotype and brain structure, in fetuses with XY chromosomes. An XY fetus with CAIS will be genetically male and develop testes, but the male phenotype won’t develop, leading to an entirely female appearance; for many people with CAIS, the only symptom of abnormality is the absence of menstruation during or after puberty.
3Not that I think there’s some absolute amount of sex that is too much. But it would be perfectly possible for a married couple to have sex that in itself is mutually honoring and self-giving, but to be so preoccupied with it that it distracts them from other legitimate needs and duties.
4I give full weight to apparently here. Both from reading others’ work and from having my own read, I know that it’s very easy for a reader unfamiliar with the author’s mind to take something totally different and entirely unexpected from their words. But until and unless clarification is forthcoming, I take the Nashville Statement to mean what I’m addressing here.
5We were the sort of evangelicals who distinguishes ourselves with vigor, not to say contempt, from fundamentalists, if that gives you the idea.
6Provisionally ignoring whether this perception is ontologically right or not.
7Of course, I have a kind of advantage over the Nashville Statement authors, in that I have no problem believing that those who are objectively outside the pale of orthodoxy will go to heaven; Christ is the only Savior, but not everybody knows what’s happening when he saves them, as I would put it, and the advantage the Church visible has is one of knowing what’s going on. Hence I can comfortably place the pale of orthodoxy wherever Rome sees fit to put it, without needing to believe that the opponents I thus gain are necessarily hell-bound.
8I don’t believe this. But anybody who does had better make damn sure they don’t start requiring things that aren’t in Scripture from the faithful.
9The five verses in question (Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13, Romans 1.26-27, I Corinthians 6.9, I Timothy 1.10) address homosexual immorality—but of course it must be pointed out that Side A believers would argue that homosexual immorality is as wrong as heterosexual morality, but that marital relations between gay men or lesbian women aren’t immoral, and that these verses are accordingly irrelevant.

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for taking the time to treat this thoroughly. While we don't always agree, your opinions are well thought out, internally consistent, and valued. I don't tend to give the framers of the NS much generosity in my reading, and (while it is justified by the context of other statements by them) it isn't necessarily fair.

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  2. As a Nashvillian, I woke up the other morning, saw this in the news, and thought: "DAMMIT!!! Here we go..." I mean, couldn't they have named it Deep Thoughts By Some Random Evangelicals or something like that? Let's leave Nash Vegas out of this.

    I really appreciate your taking the time to give it a thoughtful analysis and treatment. Whenever there is controversy between Christians and the LGBT community, you're the first guy I look to to make sense of it all. Keep doing what you're doing.

    And thank you for Footnote 7, that's a goodun.

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    1. Thank you, I'm honored.

      Also, you missed a rare chance to use the word 'Nashvillain' there.

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  3. Echoing John here: Saw the statement and was hoping you'd share with us your usual thoughtful reading. Thanks for your example, and for engaging these conversations with such grace.

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  4. Thank you for your thoughtful response, friend. For me all the Nashville statement has done is muddy the waters of a true gospel message. And for that reason alone, I would reject it.

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