Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Brethren sexuality lexicon

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
A Wordle snapshot from "American attitudes toward gay marriage" on Carl Bowman's blog
Ah, denominational conference and assembly season is drawing nigh. I can tell because both my Brethren and Mennonite friends, colleagues, sisters and brothers (noted: usually brothers) in Christ are talking vigorously and publicly about sexuality. In the Brethren blogosphere there's been quite vigorous discussion going on in a number of posts on Brethren sociologist, Carl Bowman's blog, Brethren Cultural Landscape. One post in particular, "American attitudes toward gay marriage", has generated some wonderfully respectful comments from a range of perspectives. That it is respectful is good because that's not always the case as Brethren, indeed the wider church in the West, have navigated this issue.

But one thing about this discussion that has long troubled me is its linguistic dimensions. Indeed, the issue of language extends far beyond the conversation/deliberation about sexuality, but it's my jumping-off point for this post. From taking a look at the Wordle image above, which was constructed from all the comments in the aforementioned link (except my own, see below), it's clear to see the topics of discussion and the words being used, which (in my judgment) are fairly representative of the language I've heard used over the years when sexuality in the church has been discussed. The top three "weighty" words used are: Brethren, church, and progress. The first two are no-brainers but it's the third that I want to focus on to explore the broader issue of language.

[Note: I excluded my own comment from the data used for the Wordle image because it's the text from which most of what I say below is drawn. What I am consciously trying to do here is perform at the end the critique which I offer at the beginning.]

The trouble with progress
The trouble with progress is that it's neither a theological category nor a biblical term. It’s an Enlightenment ideal, which has all sorts of philosophical, not to mention theological, problems packed into it. “Sanctification” is a better word than “progress,” but it sure doesn’t sound as sexy these days.

This one word – “progress” – and my retort to may be seen as a microcosm of my concerns about the whole discussion around sexuality in the (Western) church. There is an inattentiveness to language and its deep structures which allows these deliberations to happen primarily on Modernist grounds. Along with “progress” there are a raft of other (what my theology prof calls) “weasel words” running rampant in this (and the broader) discussion: affirmation, inclusion, justice, common sense, et al.

This may seem to be an avoidant move on my part - to get out of the important deliberations on sexuality (and they are important) - but someone has to at least raise their hand in the middle of this process and say, “Um…exactly what do we mean when we say – for instance – ‘justice’? As in: Homosexuality in the church is a justice issue.” The problem with not doing such a self-reflective linguistic exercise can be seen by the various ideologically-driven “sides” in this conversation continuing to say the same things over and over and over again, the other side never “getting it,” and vice versa. And we wonder why. We can’t assume these “weasel words” have self-evident meaning because they most certainly do not.

One reason I feel compelled to make this statement in Brethren circles is that my intellectual base is coming primarily from folks that Brethren don’t have much interest in: MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Yoder, other neo-Anabaptists, Stanley Fish, et al; a group whose perspective can be characterized as “non-foundationalist.” This is intellectual ground upon which I'm treading, so I don't expect laity to follow me through this line of reasoning, but it troubles me that Brethren scholars are reluctant to go here as well. Scott Holland, professor of peace and cross-cultural studies at Bethany Theological Seminary, has been very clear about his disagreements with Hauerwas over the years (a candor and transparency I find very refreshing; thanks, Scott!) but I feel pretty convinced that non-foundationalist perspectives have a descriptive power in this conversation which we’re not attending to, to our own peril.

A provisional, non-foundationalist, biblical/narrative speech-act/prayer
The battle mentality around a single issue is horribly crippling to a robust expression of and witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the in-breaking of the peaceable Kingdom of God which that gospel announces and enacts. Issue/battle hamstrings the body of Christ, the church, which is the cosmic center of gravity for that in-breaking. The broad corpus of Scripture shows us that when God’s chosen people get this muddled, the Spirit will work mightily to chasten the unfaithful, discipline the body, and reorient the blessed community toward the ends of God’s redemptive mission in the world. May our troubled traditions be attentive to such lessons in Scripture, be open to repentance, confession, and seek reconciliation through God’s Spirit in Christ’s body, the church. May our imaginations be broken wide open by that same Spirit, to see the radical newness of life and its possibilities. May God's will be done, on earth - in our stumbling attempts to be a faithful, healthy body - as in heaven.

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