Journeying Together and Faithfully?

[1] An evaluation of “Journey Together Faithfully: The Church and Homosexuality” (ELCA Studies on Sexuality, Part II) must answer these questions: 1) Does the document fairly and accurately represent the relevant positions? 2) Does it help people clarify their own views? 3) Is the document substantial enough to guide the process of ELCA deliberation on homosexuality and the church? While I believe “Journey Together” does fairly describe the different voices and positions within the ELCA on this controversial issue, I find it neither particularly helps readers arrive at justifiable views, nor effectively aids the institution of the ELCA in coming to a responsible and defensible position.

[2] It is important to say at the outset that I do not fault James Childs or the ELCA Task Force on Sexuality for the deficiencies in “Journey Together.” Given the scope of the task force’s assignment, the controversial nature of the subject matter, the current understanding of theological language and reflection within the ELCA, and the deeply-seated assumptions of contemporary American pop culture, the study could probably not have turned out much differently than it did. No one individually is responsible for these things, and thus no one is particularly at fault for the content of this study guide.

[3] While the document is unfortunate, it is perhaps less lamentable than it might have been. “Journey Together” neither overtly advocates nor opposes the blessing of committed same-sex relationships or the ordination, consecration, or commissioning of people in committed same-sex relationships. In many ways, it is a very open-minded document: every position is treated with some sensitivity and respect.

[4] Of course, this openness to various views on homosexuality and the church is likely to be bewildering to most of the document’s readers, especially since they are asked to reach their own conclusions on this difficult and controversial issue. How are they to do this? Putatively, they are to base their judgments on two grounds: 1) The biblical, historical and ethical material introduced in the text, and 2) their own experience.

[5] The problems of such adjudication are palpable. Readers will seldom, if ever, have the requisite background to evaluate the strength of the conflicting claims made by biblical scholars, church historians, and theological ethicists. Moreover, appeal to personal experience is problematic because of the notion’s obvious vagueness and its logical independence from epistemic concerns of truth and justification. What exactly is experience anyway? Is it an immediate givenness that is subsequently interpreted, or does the interpretation constitute part of the experience? Is experience something that can escape prejudice, or does prejudice (i.e., pre-understanding) determine an experience’s very contour? Furthermore, why believe that personal experience, which philosophers have often regarded as appearance-can deliver either truth or justification-which philosophers have traditionally heralded as reality?

An Analogy

[6] The document’s problems find a ready analogy in my “experience”-however one might understand the term. I regularly teach philosophy to undergraduate students at a state university. I am responsible for such standard fare as Introduction to Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Logic, Philosophy of Religion, and Introduction to Ethics. It is accurate to say that the entire subject matter of philosophy is bewildering to most students, who usually come to introductory courses with a certain set of pre-understandings (experience?). For instance, they generally assume that because there are “no facts” in philosophy, they can hold any opinion they want to without “having a wrong answer,” and thereby confuse their natural right to hold any opinion that fancies them with an epistemic right to hold only those positions justifiable within the logical space of reasons. While they realize the futility of “having their own opinion” on a fundamental issue in basic chemistry, they believe that in philosophy any opinion is self-justifying. They assume that philosophy is about values, and that about such things one cannot be wrong.

[7] Like most philosophy teachers, I spend enormous amounts of time in introductory courses trying to convince students that they are simply beyond their epistemic rights when they believe certain things. Some positions are justifiable within the logical space of reasons, and others clearly are not. Some views are contradictory, some incoherent, some do not fit the “data” of observation or background beliefs, and some are clearly not fruitful in moving a conversation forward. While one has a natural right to believe that the Great Pumpkin will return at each harvest, one has no epistemic right. In other words, I spend time trying to get students to question the veridicality of their own experience, of the “seemings” they have hitherto assumed to be real. Simply put, I try to get them to uncover the hidden assumptions grounding their experience, and to show them that these are often not well-founded.

[8] Philosophy is normative discourse. To do philosophy is to be involved in the making of truth claims about conflicting positions. This is difficult to teach students initially because they are accustomed to thinking that when experts disagree, there is no right answer and hence they may simply pick the view that immediately appeals to them, usually a position somewhere in between the conflicting views. (In other words, they are permitted to choose the one that “fits” them on the basis of their previous experience.)

[9] Most students understand philosophy descriptively at first; they take the history of philosophy to be a vast reservoir of interesting and intriguing views that smart and clever people have held and that they themselves can hold if they choose. Accordingly, the history of philosophy is like the produce section of the grocery store: one walks by and takes a little of each thing that appeals to them. It generally takes two or three courses before students actually understand that the rules of the philosophy game require justification within the space of reasons.

[10] I have spent so much time on this example in order to point to the fundamental problem of “Journey Together.” Like philosophy, theology has traditionally been thought to be a normative discourse. In the history of theological reflection, some positions have been justified on the basis of scripture, tradition and reason, while some have been rejected. Although personal experience is the prism through which all theological judgments are made, such experience has not, until very recently, been thought to be itself a source of theological reflection; it has not been thought capable of legitimately deciding from among conflicting opinions. To make it the criterion by which such judgments are made is to claim that the category of epistemic right does not operate in theology-that in theology appearance is reality.

[11] Readers of “Journey Together” are placed in the same boat as undergraduate students in their first philosophy course. While various positions are represented in the document, most readers possess few tools to navigate among these positions. Although they are told that they are journeying together in moral deliberation, they are not provided a basic toolbox of what constitutes such deliberation. Deontological, consequential, virtue, and divine will ethics are not introduced in the text, nor are these categories employed in moral reasoning. More troubling, theological categories are not highlighted or developed in such a way as to acquire any normative status in adjudication process. Finally, there is little in the document that displays reverence for the tradition, little that suggests that because the tradition itself serves as a datum of theological judgment, prima facie justification must be afforded normative positions within it.

[12] In summary, those who study “Journey Together” will likely be introduced to different options and learn the one or two sentence explanation of each, but not really learn how one might begin to evaluate from among these options. Readers will find themselves at a grocery store with wide aisles and many exotic foods to eat. It will be left to the experience of each individual to decide what to put in the cart. Of course, de gustibus non disputans (about matters of taste there is no dispute). As everyone knows, there are no truth-conditions in matters of taste. If the positions presented in “Journey Together” are decided upon on the basis of taste, then they really are not considered to be either true or false.

The Text

[13] While a full summary and evaluation of the text of “Journey Together” is desirable (and perhaps necessary to be fair to the text), I have room here to highlight only a couple of the main ideas within each of the document’s six sessions, and to briefly look at some of its introductory material. The text begins with a letter from Bishop Hanson followed by a section entitled “How do we ‘journey together faithfully’?” While this question is never explicitly answered, we are told that we must journey “along a path of learning and discernment…together…as a community of faith…being faithful to God, the Bible, Christian teaching, and those who we are in the body of Christ” (5). Clearly, the presumption is that being faithful includes faithfulness to who we are. Such faithfulness has ramifications for the normativity of theological language. Instead of theological justification occurring in the space of reasons, theological adjudication becomes, at least in part, expressive of personal experience. “Journey Together” alludes to this when claiming that “we enter the conversation as equals; we contribute different experiences, sensitivities, joys, sorrows, skills, and abilities” (5). Apparently, skills and abilities in theology are to be given no preference over personal sensitivities and joys. (Freshman philosophy students often believe that Kant’s views on the external world ought be given no preference over their own.)

[14] After “Journey Together” advises readers to “observe carefully the emotion, body language, and other clues about how people are feeling” (6), it makes a startling assertion: “Realize that the Holy Spirit is present and active among all in the conversation. Each participant has a part of the truth you are seeking to discern” (6). But what grounds does a confessional Lutheran have to believe this? In traditional Lutheran theology, the Holy Spirit is borne by the Word; it makes possible the correct interpretation of the Word. But affirming that does not entail that the Holy Spirit animates any conversation that people in the institutional church might happen to have. If the Holy Spirit were indeed present in and through the conversation, one might rightly claim that “each participant has a part of the truth.” Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe in the ubiquity of the Spirit’s presence in this particular conversation, nor in the Hegelian notion that truth finally “takes up” (Aufheben) various conflicting views. (Does “Journey Together” simply assume that because all people in the community of faith are baptized, they will enjoy the Holy Spirit’s presence when discussing this issue?)

[15] The first of “Journey Together”‘s six sessions deals with identity. The sessions starts out promisingly: We have identity as “the baptized, the communion of saints, a people justified by grace for Christ’s sake through faith” (7). Unfortunately, this identity in Christ on the basis of justification-one’s identity in the hidden church-is sometimes confused with one’s personal identity within the context of the empirically discernible church. This is apparent when questions are raised such as the following: “Can you think of other ways experiences of sexuality affect our identity in the body of Christ?” (8). Our identity in Christ determines that we are part of the hidden church. However, what we are within the context of the visible church is a different issue entirely.

[16] The main focus of the first session is biblical hermeneutics. After discussing the importance of experience in interpreting scripture, the study dutifully catalogues Lutheran hermeneutical principles and techniques: scripture interprets scripture, the hermeneutical circle, historical criticism, and literary criticism. Sadly, the hermeneutical techniques are given without any attempt to adjudicate, evaluate, or properly apply them. Instead of helping the reader think normatively, the description of the various techniques merely reinforces the idea that the Bible is ambiguous and difficult to read.

[17] Session Two is about “our community,” and begins by highlighting the creation accounts. Although “Journey Together” admits that “the creation accounts take for granted that sexual relation will be between a man and a woman” (12), it then rather fancifully evokes the notion of “created co-creator” in suggesting that “God’s created order is not fixed in stone; it is in the process of becoming” (13). This is problematic, for while those in the science/theology conversation employ the phrase “created co-creator” to speak of creation in an evolutionary context, “Journey Together” applies it to homosexuality, suggesting that “changing sexual orientations are a part of the ongoing creative process” (13). (Here and other places “Journey Together” would be strengthened if there were some attempt at least to report the scholarly standing of the various positions it discusses.) After very brief discussions of the classic texts of scripture dealing with homosexuality, the session offers these “conclusions”: 1) “There is general agreement that the Bible has nothing positive to say about same-sex intercourse,” and 2), for some homosexual people among us, their experience of themselves does not seem to correspond with what the Bible calls an abomination” (17). While these conclusions are descriptively accurate, they skirt a problem: Given the truth of (1), is the experience talked about in (2) even epistemically relevant to the evaluation in question?

[18] Session Three concerns tradition. After an exceedingly brief sketch of Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage, there follows a description of shifting attitudes about slavery, the role of women, divorce, and remarriage. Unfortunately, no attempt is made to adjudge the relevance of these issues for the homosexuality issue. Are these good analogies? Are the parts of scripture that putatively attest to the possible goodness of same-sex intercourse analogous to the goodness of not having slavery? What is the supposed analogy between divorce and ongoing homosexual activity?

[19] Justification by grace through faith is the topic of the fourth session. Within the context of the question of blessing of same-sex unions, an interesting equivocation arises. After correctly pointing out that Luther said that sin is unfaith, and “a concern of our own desires rather than trust in God and love for the neighbor,” “Journey Together” declares that “things that are morally wrong and sinful are those actions and impulses directly contrary to God’s loving purposes for our flourishing” (25). But clearly these are logically distinct notions. One could accede to the first and not the second, and vice versa. Unfaith is lack of trust in God. There is no reason to believe that this necessarily negates “our flourishing.” (Nor should we think that trust in God entails our flourishing-unless one wants to claim that one flourishes on the cross.) The equivocation above is important, for if sin is antithetical to God’s purposes for our flourishing, and if one cannot be dispositionally homosexual and still flourish, then homosexual activity is not sinful.

[20] Session Five attempts to connect our baptismal vocation with moral deliberation. Somehow being a member of the priesthood of all believers involves us in the community’s “process of deliberation” (27). In order to deliberate wisely, “Journey Together” reports the current results of the scientific research. After declaring that the “exact cause of homosexual orientation is unclear,” the document opines that the experience of those whose homosexual inclination is a given “must be taken seriously” (27). Unfortunately, it is not at all clear what “taking this seriously” involves. The session points out that “nature” may not refer simply to “the God-given structure of creation,” but the “ongoing creation” where we have “new possibilities” of what we see as “natural” (28). (It would be refreshing to find clearly stated in the text the historical truth that the Christian tradition meant by “nature” or “natural” that which ought to be, not that which, in fact, is. On the traditional view, to say that x is “natural” for P is to say that it conforms to the human apprehension of the eternal law, not that it is a dispositional property of P.)

[21] The final session is about gospel mission. Readers are to reflect on “how the question some in this church have raised about the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination, consecration, and commissioning of people in committed same-sex unions relate to the mission of the church” (32). Again we have a description of available options: “Blessing same-sex unions would contradict the Bible’s judgment” (32); since there “is a natural need for companionship and love, we should bless same-sex unions” (33); we should regard homosexual orientation as one expression of human sexuality and affirm it with the sanctioning of same-sex unions” (33). The session concludes by asking if disagreement about the moral judgment of homosexuality is church-dividing? Predictably, one side says “No,” the other “Yes.”

Concluding Remarks

[22] When all is said and done, it is difficult to see what good “Journey Together” can accomplish. While it may have salutary value in challenging the prejudice of those who have never thought about the issue, it provides no way to come to a reasoned judgment on the controversies. In fact, given the structure of “Journey Together,” it seems that the sexuality task force may be committed to recommending the “local option,” i.e., let each congregation decide. Here might be the reasoning:

1) There is a diversity of opinion within the ELCA on the sexuality issue.
2) The ELCA is a community of the baptized and justified in which the Holy Spirit is present.
3) Because this community has a divergence in opinion on this issue, and because this community of the justified has the Holy Spirit present, then the sheer divergence of opinion must itself be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
4) On this issue, the truth is not merely on one side or the other, but is found in the complex interaction and moral deliberation of the empirical community known as church. Within this ongoing deliberative process, the complexity of truth is manifest.
5) In order to witness to this complexity of truth, the ELCA must allow individual congregations the opportunity to wrestle with this question. As it says early on in the study guide, “Each participant has a part of the truth you are seeking to discern” (6).
[23] I believe that “Journey Together” truly wants to avoid division in the church. Consonant with this desire, it labors mightily to present without much critical comment all sides on this controversial issue. Unfortunately, what results is not a work of theology, but rather a catalogue of positions that are conclusions of theological arguments made elsewhere. But how is one supposed to evaluate conflicts from among these conclusions? This is the problem for readers of “Journey Together,” and it is the problem for the institution known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Dennis Bielfeldt

Dennis Bielfeldt is Professor of Philosophy and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.