by Arvid Adell
Dr. Adell is chairman of the philosophy department at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 17, 1979, p. 46. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Process Theology suggests that in some ways God is immutable and absolute, while in other ways he is changeable and relative. In the case of homosexuality, although wrong in biblical times when population growth was important, the situation today has changed, and any insistence in the need for reproduction is not now advantageous or propitious. The process model of theology offers a valid, creative method of scriptural interpretation.
In the small southwestern Iowa town where I grew up, there were three churches — each with its own unique appearance and reputation. The largest church seemed rigid, formal, uncompromising, intractable. Its church plant was a huge, imposing brick structure designed to last forever. Not even a midwestern tornado could threaten to dislodge it. The medium-sized church was flexible, informal, accommodating and very much “up front.” Its buil
ding was an unpretentious frame edifice, built to accept all kinds of additions appropriate to the changing times. It had long since lost any trace of architectural symmetry. The smallest church was somewhere between these two. It advertised itself as the “via media.” As I recall, the church building was a symbolic mixture of brick and wood: anchored to the rock, but geared to the times.
It was fascinating to observe both the contrasting appearances and the diversified styles according to which these churches dealt with continually surfacing theological and social problems. There was always a conflagration. If the issue wasn’t ecumenicity, then it was civil rights, or the liberation and equality of women, or the immorality of war. No sooner was one fire extinguished than another started to inflame the congregations.
A New Debate
It is reasonable to assume that these three churches continue to carry on as usual, fueled by a fresh incendiarism. The current cause, no doubt, would be the desire of self-acknowledged, practicing homosexuals to be recognized as full and equal church members whose sexual orientation is irrelevant. At first glance, acceptance of homosexuals appears to be another on that homogenous list of liberation causes faced courageously and openly by some churches; another minority group which has experienced oppression by the majority would now be granted status as full participants within the Christian community. To the triumph of blacks and women would be added the freedom of another of God’s tyrannized persons — the homosexual.
If this is the case, all Christians ought to welcome the event. As Robert McAfee Brown put it:
It is clear in the Biblical drama as a whole that when God takes sides, he sides with the oppressed. . . . God did not side with Pharaoh, the powerful political leader, but with the oppressed menial servants, the slaves. God sides with the oppressed. The oppressors are on the wrong side. It is as clear as that!
Is the homosexual issue in fact comparable to those other liberation movements of recent decades? At least in one very significant aspect, the answer is No. Quite simply, the Bible explicitly and repeatedly condemns homosexual acts. A task force of the United Presbyterian Church U.S.A. set up to study homosexuality summarized its examination of the relevant biblical material by stating that “homosexuality is a minor theme in Scripture.” To substantiate this assertion, the group offered a list of 14 passages. Collectively, these references constitute more than 275 verses. Rather than documenting the contention that homosexuality is a minor theme, the verses appear to have quantified the seriousness with which the Judeo-Christian communities regarded the problem. A reading of these scriptural materials can only lead to the conclusion that both the Old and the New Testaments emphatically oppose homosexual practice. In this important aspect, homosexuality must be viewed differently from the other liberation movements.
Rejecting Scriptural Authority?
The current debate has ramifications far exceeding the particular issue. At stake is not only the acceptance or rejection of a minority group; even more important is the question of whether Christians can accept a style of conduct which the Bible pronounces unacceptable. For many persons, an endorsement of homosexuals is tantamount to a rejection of biblical authority, and opens the door to an arbitrary selection and elimination of biblical standards. Surely this license must appear to be a radical departure from the confessions of many churches in which the Scriptures are declared to be “not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel.”
Can the church adhere to the authoritative witness of the Bible and still accept homosexuals? Is there a methodology whereby the God of the biblical community can be understood as having modified his ethical stance on such an important issue? There is such a theory, and it may be illustrated by an analogy built on the three small-town churches.
The indestructible brick church can represent a theological understanding known as classical theism, which eventuated as an alliance of biblical theology and Greek philosophy. The Bible defined God as perfect, and Plato and Aristotle argued persuasively that perfection implies changelessness. After all, they reasoned, if something changes, it must change either for the better or the worse. If it changes by adding something to itself such as a new idea or novel experience, then it must previously have been lacking this knowledge or awareness and, to that degree, it must have been deficient and imperfect. Since the biblical God is perfect, he must be complete and incapable of change. Theology and philosophy conspired to give us the Unmoved Mover, the Perfect Being with whom “there is no variation, no shadow of turning,” the One who announces, “I am the Lord, unchanging.” His son incarnates this immutability: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.” The favorite hymn of the brick church must be
“Great is thy faithfulness,” O God my Father.
There is no shadow of turning with thee.
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As thou hast been thou forever shalt be.
In accepting this classical theistic understanding, one must relate to a God who never changes his mind, never alters his judgments, never allows himself to be moved by the exigencies of the world. His ethical pronouncements are binding on all persons in all places for all times. If homosexuality was an abomination in biblical times, it is still wrong today and will be wrong in the eschaton.
The second church model is the frame building with the asymmetrical proportions. Here, nothing remains constant. Change dominates. The concept this structure symbolizes is of a God who is not very dependable or predictable. He has no absolutes, no fixed character, no qualities which transcend the vagaries of time and place. A God ruled by change is not available to assist in solving ethical dilemmas. For either he continually changes himself, in which case his character lacks substance and stability; or he is determined by circumstances outside of himself, in which case he is powerless to direct and assist others. An entirely arbitrary and capricious God may inspire awe and fear, but he offers no model for formulating a coherent social ethic.
Finally, there is the heteromorphic church with the mixture of brick and wood. Such a structure symbolizes both change and permanence, both alteration and constancy. As applied to God, this idea suggests that in some ways he is immutable and absolute, while in other ways he is changeable and relative. This is the position of process theology — an understanding which has much to offer the church in its current struggle.
A Creative Compromise
First, consider God’s changeless attributes. His love for his creation, his concern for persons, his availability to those who seek him, his sensitivity toward those who are wronged, his disdain for cruelty, his desire for the best, his keen awareness of our condition, his patience in the pursuit of value — these are absolute and unshakeable characteristics of God. In us, these attributes are relative and variable, but God does not share this liability.
Second, consider the manner in which God changes. All of the above-mentioned characteristics of God are relational. They show what kind of God he is by showing how he relates to his creation. His awareness, concern and love are absolute in the sense that they are constantly present and continually expressed to us in our daily lives. However, we are creatures of temporality and we find ourselves thrust into a world of becoming and change. “There came a storm and a blinding rain, and the world was never the same again.” Therefore, if God is going to relate absolutely to us, to be genuinely aware, concerned and loving, then he must take into account the variables of our changing situation. God’s love is absolute and unchanging; but the particular manner in which that love expresses itself must be relative to time, place and person.
Viewed from this process perspective, God’s ethical judgments are manifestations of his absolute character. The biblical mores are expressions of that character, and any attempt to dismiss them as insignificant mitigates God’s seriousness in relating to his people. However, since these mores are relational and since at least one of the parties in that relationship changes, it follows that the mores must take into account the changing situation. Suppose that a child were fortunate enough to have a deeply concerned father. The father would demonstrate his concern by offering various commands and proscriptions which prohibit the child from staying outside after dark, from attempting to drive the car, from playing with matches. Relative to the development of his child, the father’s commands are absolute and they give evidence of his caring. However, 20 years later these same commands would not only be irrelevant but counterproductive. Instead of manifesting and enhancing the father’s love, they would show a possessiveness and insensitivity which would be in direct contradiction to the parent’s intentions.
Similarly, biblical mores ought to be perceived within the context of God’s dipolarity. They express the absoluteness of his love, relative to that community. As conditions and persons change, the particular mores may change as well, but God’s loving never changes. This is not an advocacy of cultural relativism or personal subjectivism in ethics. All changes must be defined through the absoluteness of God’s changeless attributes.
From the viewpoint of process theology, the question of homosexuality can evoke a new interpretation. There is no need to suggest that the Scriptures are perennially averse to this form of human sexuality. Instead, the church can affirm the validity of those proscriptions in manifesting God’s absolute concern for the nascent Jewish and Christian communities, and then raise the question concerning their value for contemporary society. Given the demographic situation of the early communities, God’s care might well have been expressed through his insistence that sexuality always be open to the possibility of reproduction. Therefore, homosexuality would be wrong. However, the situation has changed, and this same insistence may not now be advantageous or propitious. Relative to the mission and the stance of the 20th century church, the question would be whether the affirmation and acceptance of homosexuals is harmonious with God’s changeless love for his children.
No Easy Answer
Process thought pictures God as being passionately engaged in this evolving world. His nature is such that he continually urges the accomplishment of the best that can develop in each relationship. This desire, like that of the father with the maturing child, reveals itself in his constant love, and in his relative ethical injunctions commensurate with that love.
Process thought insists that there must be at least three ingredients in every meaningful experience. There must be an ideal or a goal to be achieved. There must be some elements of novelty, daring and freshness so that our experiences are not merely repetitious and anesthetizing. And there must be enough control and order so that our adventures do not result in a feeling of chaos and disintegration. These ingredients are relevant to the decision currently facing churches. Can the inclusion of homosexuals be integrated with the operative understanding of human sexuality which is a legacy from our previous conditioning in such a manner as to result in creative, exciting growth?
Certainly the process model does not offer an easy answer to the question of homosexuality, but it does provide a conception of God in which some positive affirmations can be made. Biblical authority can be recognized and taken seriously, and the possibility of affirming homosexuals can remain a viable option, regardless of the decision which the church has made in the past or makes in the present. Also, this interpretation offers the church an opportunity to realize that, like us, God is hard at work attempting to eventuate this conflict into a creative, liberating experience for all his people.