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The Bible and Living in Love and Faith

Fulcrum - Tue, 01/12/2020 - 21:00

As part of its series responding to Living in Love and Faith, Fulcrum is inviting various writers to express their thoughts as a way of nurturing respectful dialogue. Here, Martin Kuhrt writes in response to LLF.

How can Christians who claim to ground their faith on the Bible as God's Word come to such radically different conclusions about matters of identity, sex, sexuality and gender? This is a prominent question in the book produced by the Church of England's Living in Love and Faith Project. Rather than do an in-depth assessment or critique of the whole book and the resources produced alongside it, in this article I would like to give an initial impression of the project but then analyse in more detail one approach it takes to this specific question.

I've viewed the two minute trailer on the website and listened to the thirty-five minute audio recording of the discussion of four members of the working group that produced the resources, and I've read the full text of the book which is downloadable if you don't want to pay for the paperback version or wait for it to be delivered.

There are those who have already decided that the project and the resources it has produced are a further sign of the Church of England's gradual sliding into apostasy, as have various Anglican provinces around the world, or that its intent was to play for time and put off any decisions which need to be made, while giving the appearance of doing something, or that it is yet another disappointment for those who have waited long enough to be affirmed, because it doesn't make specific proposals for change.

Having experienced the 'Shared Conversations' process, I myself was wary of a further 'talking and listening' exercise because I felt that those 'conversations' were weighted towards the listening being one way and that embracing cultural change seemed to be regarded as more important than faithfulness to Scripture. The two minute video introduction would not do much to reassure Christians coming from my perspective. However, the thirty-five minute audio recording gave more of a sense of real mutual listening and respectful engagement across the divide(s).

To fully assess the value of the project it is necessary to read the book and engage with the other resources. Having read the book, I'd like to say that I think it has educational value in providing a summary of the issue as it particularly concerns the Church of England. It does show, I believe, that the Church of England structures and those within it who hold to 'orthodox', 'traditional', 'conservative', or 'biblical' views can listen to 'progressive', 'revisionist', 'inclusive' or 'liberal' views and offer people who identify as gay or trans and vulnerable, a place where they feel respected, loved and heard.

In a world of Twitter sound-bites, identity politics and culture-war sloganeering, the book sketches out in an orderly way the points of disagreement, so that the uninformed can make some sort of sense of the controversy. The 'real life stories' and recorded conversations in the book, in my opinion, evoke the issues and allow the broad range of different perspectives to be heard.

My chief aim in writing this article is to pick up on the question of how to understand the Bible's authority. The book makes use of the church's traditional idea of 'charitable assumption', that when people appear earnest in professing something, then we proceed as if that is the case. So the book is keen to say that the disagreements, at least among those on the project, were more to do with interpreting the Bible and how its authority is to be understood as connecting with our lives today, rather than whether or not it is authoritative for Christians today.

This therefore places the question “What does the Bible really say about marriage, sexuality, gender and identity?” at the forefront. I am glad about this, because I have heard campaigners say in the 'Shared Conversations' that biblical argument is not their priority because the battle will be won by cultural and political pressure and an appeal to 'what the Spirit is saying to the Church now', rather than earnest, Spirit-filled, submissive and relentlessly prayerful biblical engagement.

In chapter 13, as part of the section on 'how we hear God', the book describes a range of approaches to the Bible containing seven broad positions along a chosen spectrum. At one end, there are those who say that Bible is a straightforward, clear and inerrant 'manual for living' given to us by the God who loves us and that when people talk about 'interpretation' this is usually a cover for wanting to disobey its plain teaching. At the opposite end is the view that 'the Bible is a collection of fallible human voices, produced by people who were caught up in movements of God’s Spirit in history – but their words only do uneven and partial justice to what they glimpsed. You can certainly find some important truths in Scripture, sometimes powerfully and beautifully expressed, but they are mixed in with all kinds of other material, some of it horrific.'

The other positions 'in-between' are laid out thoughtfully, and I would say that in that chapter's commentary upon them, there does not seem to be a 'liberal bias'. It's a rather helpful summary of different perspectives on the Bible in the Church of England today.

However, in chapter 11, which is all about the buzzword 'inclusion' there is, in my view, a troubling leaning towards a view of the Bible that is too close to the idea that certain testimonies in the Bible about God's character, commands or actions are untrue because they are mistaken human ideas about God rather than God-inspired truthful revelation written down by human authors.

Rather slippery language is used in relation to the idea of a 'tension' between two apparently divergent positions. So the book says that there is a tension in the Old Testament between 'exclusion' and 'inclusion'. On one level this is fairly obvious. There are some passages in which Israel being 'separate' from heathen nations is emphasized and some passages where welcome, hospitality and inclusion are commanded or celebrated. But we need to think really carefully about the nature of things 'held in tension'.

If we imagine an elastic band held between two fixed points so that there is tension, then this is a helpful metaphor for the creative dynamic between two revealed truths which are equally grounded in God, important and valid. The two truths might appear to be inconsistent, and therefore we are tempted to privilege one over the other, but in order for the tension to be maintained, we must hold that both should be firmly maintained. If we allow one to become more determinative, more central, more influential than the other, then this is like moving the other towards it, therefore lessening the tension and eventually removing it altogether. The elastic band droops.

So, for example, if we are trying to hold the two truths of God's elective sovereign power and human freewill / responsibility together in tension, but make one of the two more 'normative' or 'in tune with the thrust of biblical teaching' or 'more faithful to the trajectory which the bible sets us on' then the tension is gradually lost and the paradox reduced to a single polarity. Other paradoxes which would be collapsed would be Jesus full humanity and his full divinity, and the 'now' and 'not yet' of the kingdom.

Chapter 11 in Living in Love and Faith sees not so much a paradox, but a contradiction between passages where there is something exclusionary happening and passages where there is something inclusive going on and suggests that we ought to privilege the inclusive one over the exclusive one. So it gives, as an example, the attitude Israel should have towards the Moabites. The five paragraphs below are quoted verbatim from pages 224-225 of the book.

“This tension between inclusion and exclusion is particularly obvious in Israel’s relationship with their Moabite neighbours. Should the Moabites, or should they not, be allowed to become part of Israel? The issue aroused all kinds of strong feelings, steeped in fear and history. The book of Deuteronomy seems clear: No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord … because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt…. You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live. (Deuteronomy 23.3-6)

This is hardly ambiguous. Not only are Moabites to be excluded from Israel, but Israel is explicitly under an obligation never to do anything for them. The book of Ruth, on the other hand, is equally clear. Ruth is from the land of Moab, and is regularly called ‘the Moabite’. Yet when she comes with her mother-in-law Naomi from Moab to Bethlehem, the Israelite Boaz not only shows kindness to her but he also eventually marries her. Through their union Ruth becomes the great grandmother of King David. She becomes a key figure in Israel’s story. The presence of two such different voices within Israel’s Scriptures suggests that the relationship between Israel and Moab was a divisive issue for some in ancient Israel.

This is a tension linked to intense questions of identity, ethnicity, faith, boundaries – and of inclusion and exclusion. So what do we do with these two texts? Deuteronomy has a strong vision of Israel as the elect and holy covenant people of the Lord, and that vision has shaped both Jewish and Christian faiths. The paragraph about Moabites, however, seems to be about revenge and resentment. It essentially tells Israel to respond to the Moabites in kind: hostility is to be met with hostility. It is a response located in a specific historical context and trauma.

The story of Ruth has a different tenor. Most famous are Ruth’s words to Naomi, when she promises the traumatized older woman that she will always be with her, care for her, and share her people and her faith. This self-giving generosity is the very thing that Boaz notices and commends, and it motivates his own generosity towards Ruth. Ruth thereby comes into the heart of Israel’s story when Boaz marries her. It is a story about the triumph of loving-kindness, a prime characteristic of the Lord himself (Exodus 34.6,7), which should characterize also those who respond truly to him (see Psalms 111 and 112).

In comparing these two texts, we could argue that the book of Ruth stands closer to the overall moral and spiritual heart of the Old Testament, and of the faith rooted in it, than does the paragraph in Deuteronomy 23.3-6. It lines up, for instance, with the prophecy in Isaiah, in which God promises to bring foreign peoples ‘to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’ (Isaiah 56.7). The judgement that Christians should privilege Ruth over the paragraph in Deuteronomy looks to be in line with the priorities of the Old Testament itself, quite apart from that of the New Testament. The question then perhaps arises whether, if the law in Deuteronomy 23 is relativized in the book of Ruth, there might be a similar relativizing or deprivileging of the Levitical prohibition of same-sex intercourse? Or does the absence of any texts commending what Leviticus condemns challenge such relativization? “

So here, I would say, we have a good example of what is claimed initially to be a tension, but is really claimed to be a contradiction and we are invited to choose the position we feel is most in line with what our faith is really all about. The words of Deuteronomy, said in the Bible to be 'God's law,' could really merely demonstrate the resentful and fearful spirit of those who had endured trauma. The message of Ruth, by contrast, is one of kindness, welcome and inclusion, backed up by some other parts of Scripture about God's concern for non-Jews. This appears to provide a way of avoiding potentially challenging texts. However, this opens the door to privileging 'nice' passages over 'nasty' ones whenever the supposed 'tension' (which is really being treated as a contradiction) occurs. Why stop at the Old Testament? There might be similar 'tensions' in the New Testament, either between texts themselves or between certain texts and modern 'understandings' which it is claimed that the Spirit or science has led us into today as we go forward.

This is where I think we have to challenge people who claim to hold the Bible as their authority but who use slippery language and ideas to say, in effect, that the Bible has internal contradictions which render some of it, unhelpful and un-authoritative, even when read in context using sound principles of exegesis, in revealing to us the nature of God and what pleases him or displeases him today.

Was the Deuteronomy passage a command from the God who is good, part of a body of law relayed faithfully by Moses, as the Old Testament and New Testament (including the words of Jesus) testify? Or was it made up by Moses, or some others, because, for historical reasons, they didn't like Moabites very much? The answer that this part of the Living in Love and Faith book suggests, is the latter.

Now of course, for those who believe that the whole Bible faithfully reveals the character of a God who is love and completely good, there will be various problems to wrestle with. (I've written a recently published book seeking to answer the criticisms of the New Atheists who cite passages where God commands or does certain things to claim the biblical God is a very nasty piece of work indeed). There will need to be proper study and exegesis of these 'hard texts' to see what God was really doing or telling the Israelites to do and why, and therefore what, in the light of God's overall plan in Christ, we can learn about God's character and purposes to help us lead holier lives today. But the incentive to do this is reduced if we can dismiss passages like this as indicative of unenlightened, unworthy ideas about what it means to be the people of God. No doubt there were plenty of unworthy ideas about this among the Israelites at various times, but if these ideas managed to creep in and corrupt the construction of the biblical narrative, does this not considerably reduce the Bible's authority as God's true revelation?

I would say that if we look more carefully at Deuteronomy 23v3-6 it does not say that Moabites are to be an exception to the laws about hospitality, not handing over escaped slaves, treating aliens justly, being kind to the poor and vulnerable, of which there are loads. The translation of this passage given in chapter 11 of Living in Love and Faith is not referenced and, while I am not a Hebrew expert, it seems very different from the NIV translation, which says, not that the Israelites must never do anything kind to a Moabite (by way of exception to all the other laws) but that they were not to make a political treaty of friendship with them as a nation. The prohibition of Moabites 'entering the assembly of the Lord' to the tenth generation does not have to be read as a racist edict or an act of petty revenge, but as a God-given didactic intergenerational ban on Moabites having access to certain political and religious rights in Israel. This solemn 'exclusion' was a just and, in the long term, a merciful decree which would have reminded Moab of its sin in wanting to starve the pilgrim Israelites of food and water and hiring Balaam to curse them, with the aim of ultimate repentance, restoration and inclusion in Christ. It does not say that any Moabite found on Israel's soil should be ill-treated or deported or that any Israelite man was forbidden to marry a Moabite woman who embraced the God of Israel as Ruth did. Had Old Testament law forbidden anything Boaz did for Ruth he would not have done it, because the book of Ruth takes pains to show that Boaz scrupulously obeyed the law of Moses in protecting Ruth, allowing her as a vulnerable widow to glean, and going through the lawful procedure for being her kinsman redeemer.

This perhaps is where the point of difference is among those who claim to adhere to the Bible but who differ over how authoritative the whole biblical revelation is for us today. My book God Is Good — Exploring the Character of the Biblical God, challenges the idea that any part of the biblical revelation shows God to be anything less than good. And that includes the full biblical revelation about marriage and sexuality from Genesis to Revelation.

Martin Kuhrt

 

Views in guest articles are not necessarily shared by the Fulcrum Executive.

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Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: A Tribute

Fulcrum - Tue, 01/12/2020 - 04:00

The death of the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has led to an outpouring of grief and affection from within the Jewish community and beyond. Our own Archbishop, Justin Welby, suggested that it was his ‘profound depth, and equally profound commitment to relating with others’ that made him such a great leader. ‘When you met him,’ he said, ‘you couldn’t but be swept up in his delight at living, his sense of humour, his kindness, and his desire to know, understand and value others.’

What Welby called his depth was a feature of someone trained in philosophy and Jewish theology. His PhD examined rabbinic ideas about taking responsibility for others. In his obituary for Jonathan Sacks Daniel Taub, a former Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, talked of Sacks’ enormous range of erudition and his particular focus on matters of morality. He was indeed highly intelligent and erudite but his intellect and experience enabled him to have something much more profound -- the gift of wisdom. And with that gift of wisdom came an ability to communicate that wisdom to others, never to talk above them. This was a gift he brought to his Thought for the Day broadcasts; he spoke so that everyone could understand. Not only could they understand, they could also take away something for themselves. Prince Charles, in his tribute to Sacks, noted that his wisdom meant that he was able to ‘cut through confusion and clamour;’ when asked a question to which the answer might seem to be either a or b he would show how both were based on false assumptions and that the real answer was c.

What I wish to do in this tribute is to look at some of Jonathan Sacks’ thoughts and beliefs  which are of relevance to us as Christians, for I believe that we too, not just his Jewish colleagues, can learn from him –  and can benefit from his wisdom.

 

How Might Faith Communities View One another?

In 1997 Samuel Huntington’s book about what he called the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ was published.[i] Huntington’s thesis was that there was an inevitable clash between the western and Muslim worlds – between two civilizations. In 2002 Jonathan Sacks published a response in which he suggested that Huntington’s thesis was wrong – there was no inevitable clash.[ii] Instead, Sacks argued that in the modern world there needs to be an acceptance of cultural and religious difference. Accepting this would make the concept of any such clash irrelevant.

With the attacks of 9/11 in the recent background as he was writing, Sacks argues that people of different faiths ‘need to search --- each faith in its own way – for a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of, those who are not of our faith.’[iii] Although he says that he is an orthodox Jew, he asks whether he can hear the echoes of the voice of God in a Hindu, Sikh, Christian or Muslim. In writing about the relationship between the different faiths Sacks got himself into trouble with members of his own faith community. In the first edition of his book he wrote, ‘Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions of revelation – faiths in which God speaks and we attempt to listen.’[iv] In other words, he was suggesting that Judaism’s God is the same as that of the Christian and the Muslim and that God can speak to each. He argues that the heart of monotheism is not what it has traditionally been taken to be: one God and therefore one faith. Instead, he posits the idea that unity creates diversity. This is why difference is to be welcomed and accepted; hence the title of his book, the Dignity of Difference.

Publication of the first edition resulted in uproar in some sections of the Jewish community. Two senior orthodox rabbis asked Sacks to recall the book. When he failed to do so an expert in Jewish law was asked for his opinion; he concluded that the book contained views contrary to the Hebrew scriptures. Sacks agreed with his publishers that a second edition should contain amendments to the first.

In the second edition of his book he ‘toned down’ the idea that God can speak through other faiths. Whereas in the first edition he suggested that Judaism believes in a variety of faiths and truths, in the second he said simply that there is not one exclusive path to salvation. Here we had someone who was wrestling with the question of the validity of other faiths from a Jewish perspective. Judaism is not an evangelistic faith, so how might God ‘deal with’ those who are not Jews? Originally in the first edition he argued that we should not see truth as a universal concept: he suggested that religions and ethical beliefs will be diverse. He argued that ‘God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims.’[v]  In the second edition, however, he argued instead that God made a covenant with the Jewish people and that other people and faiths should find their own relationship with God through obeying the Noahide commandments.[vi]

Jonathan Sacks wanted to be inclusive: he was trying to demonstrate that people of different faiths need not be in conflict because there was a way in which the diversity of different faiths was held together in a unity. He wanted to affirm and value faith traditions other than his own. In seeking to hold together different faith communities and beliefs there is a challenge for us as Christians, and as protestant Christians in particular. Roman Catholic teaching embodied, for example, in the Nostra Aetate declaration says that ‘The Church regards with esteem... the Moslems. They adore the one God...’[vii] This is an inclusivity similar to that for which Sacks was calling. More recently, Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity alongside the Grand imam of al Azhar which said that ‘the pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom.’[viii] This was a statement that echoed the idea put forward by Sacks in the original edition of The Dignity of Difference; as with Sacks, the Pope too was criticised for being too inclusive.

Here then is the challenge for the protestant church. Are we able in any way to include the ‘religious other’ in the way that Sacks and the Pope suggested? Are there ways in which we might say on the one hand that Jesus Christ is God’s full and final revelation and at the same time ascribe a religious dignity to Jews and Muslims? Can we say that monotheistic faiths bear witness to the one God or that they worship the one God?

 

How Might Communities Relate to One Another?

One of the reasons that Sacks was such a good communicator was the way he used stories and pictures to illustrate his point. In so doing he was able to communicate clearly with everyone so that they could all understand the point he was making. One of his books is built around a series of pictures; he even had a cartoon of it made for his website. Watch it, listen to Sacks himself, and you will understand his argument immediately.[ix]

The book in question is The Home We Build Together[x]. In The Dignity of Difference he argued that we are naturally different and that unity and difference are mutually supportive. The Home We Build Together opens by saying that although we are different we must bring our differences as gifts to the common good. Unless we do that what should have been the music that society creates simply becomes noise.

He uses the picture of a country house to illustrate his first model of society. In such a model minorities who have settled in Britain are welcomed by a generous host. However generous their host, however, they remain guests: the country house, however nice, is not theirs.  They are only visitors and the country house can never be their home. Sacks says that this is how many arrivals to Britain from other countries experienced Britain, including his own Jewish community, in the late nineteenth century.

The second picture or model he uses is that of the hotel. In this model the visitors are independent enough to be able to pay their own way but, as with a country house, a hotel can never be a home: it is simply a building in which to stay. In this model Sacks suggests that there is no dominant culture; it is a picture of a multicultural society. The danger is that in a hotel society becomes a series of non-intercommunicating rooms. It can soon lead to segregation. This, he argues, was Britain in the late 1950s.

Sacks outlines how, after the riots in northern towns in 2001, the Cantle Report discovered what those who lived there already knew – that different ethnic groups tended to cluster together in enclaves. Certain areas of a city were dominated by a particular ethnic minority; children often went to schools dominated by those minorities and where there was a measure of diversity families tended to mix and socialise with those who shared their background and beliefs. The report painted a picture of British society for its ethnic and religious minorities as a hotel.

Sacks’ preferred model of society is one in which those minorities who have settled in Britain together build their own houses with the help of those who already live around them. Together with those who already live there they become a valued part of a society in which everyone, early and late arrivals, work for the common good side by side. Different groups mix together as they go about their daily lives.

Here again Sacks offers a challenge for our churches. Many are beginning to look at the issues of racial inclusivity and unconscious bias within their own community, especially where that community includes ethnic minorities. How well do we reflect inside our congregations the values of the Kingdom in which, in the biblical picture, ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3: 28)? If we take on board Sacks’ picture of the house we build together we might ask whether the church, where it has the opportunity to do so, might create relationships with ethnic and religious minorities in its local community. Might churches, synagogues and mosques come together to promote what Sacks calls the common good by joining together to examine the issue of climate change? Might they come together to look at issues such as housing, as they have done after the Grenfell Tower disaster?  A Jewish student said to me not long ago that she thought that many Jewish students lived in what she called a ‘faith bubble.’ Of course, there is nothing wrong in mixing with people like ourselves, whether in terms of faith, profession or interest; but Sacks encourages us to help make our local communities more integrated.

 

‘God Wants Us to Change Things’

Jonathan Sacks’ daughter, Gila, said at his funeral that one of the things her father taught her was that God wants us to change things. There are always problems, she said, but her father believed that all problems are solvable. As she put it humorously, her father would want us to solve the issue of anti-Semitism while the kettle boiled. In his last publication, Morality, he suggested the Hebrew Bible expressed an idea that was radical in its day: that time is an arena of change and that human beings and societies can change.[xi] It was this belief that led to his optimism and the belief that all problems are solvable. The belief that man is free and that he can change, and can sometimes change radically, is a belief that is held by both Judaism and Christianity. Neither faith has room for pessimism.

Over the last few years I have enjoyed reading a number of Jonathan Sacks’ books. I was always excited when a new one was published: now I could learn something new! Alas, that will be no more. What I will do, however, is to go back over what I have read and see if I can learn some more! As a Christian I believe that there is much that I can still learn from this wise leader of the Jewish community.

 

David Kibble
Formerly a Deputy Headteacher at Huntington School, York, David is a Licensed Lay Minister at St George’s Church, Leeds.

 

FOOTNOTES

[i] Samuel P Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (London: Free Press, 2002)

[ii] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Continuum, 2002)

[iii] Ibid, 5

[iv] Ibid, 19

[v] Ibid, 55

[vi] A series of seven commandments based on Genesis 9:9. They are outlined and explained at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/texts/cjrelations/resources/sourcebook/Noahide_covenant.htm

[vii] The text is available at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html

[viii] The text is available at http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/travels/2019/outside/documents/papa-francesco_20190204_documento-fratellanza-umana.html

[ix] You can find the cartoon at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzBG9AwpXYg

[x] Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (London: Bloomsbury, 2007)

[xi] Jonathan Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2020), 292

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