Monday, March 07, 2011

Who are you?

If you start your investigation of human nature with Jesus - if Christology is at the centre of your anthropology - the possibility is raised that you do not know yourself.  You may have to be told who you are.  It may be that none of us knows inherently, or is able to deduce from our own behaviour or that of others, what it means to be human.  That raises all kinds of issues.

One issue that has been floating around recently, mainly because of the case of Mr and Mrs Johns, is the attitude of Christians to homosexuality.  Now, up front, I want to acknowledge that this is a hugely complex and, for many, painful issue.  I also want to acknowledge that Christians don't all agree on this topic.  But I have to say that as I read Scripture, and as I try to think theologically about what the gospel implies for humanity, I arrive at the conclusion that an active homosexual lifestyle is not compatible with the Christian message.  I don't want to overplay that, and I also don't want to make out that this is a big part of my belief - it is not.  (In fact, although from the news you would get the impression that evangelical Christians basically talk about this all the time, and also that they are raging homophobes, my experience has been that the topic comes up rarely, and when it does is tackled with pastoral sensitivity.  I know that hasn't been everyone's experience.)  Still, however peripheral this belief is - however much I may consider it to be basically an implication of an implication of the gospel, something which stands at considerable remove from the heart of the faith - nevertheless I am obliged to hold it.

And here's the point.  This position comes in for criticism so often in the news, and raises such outrage amongst our contemporaries, because it challenges our notion of what it means to be human.  Christians are saying something which is, despite all my disclaimers above, huge in what it means for human nature.  Everybody knows that Christians want to tell people how humanity ought to be - it is part of the Christian message to say that we are not what we should be, and that we must be changed.  This is, naturally, offensive to people.  But I think we are actually saying something more offensive than that - we are saying that you are not who you think you are.  Imagine if a Christian said this: 'if this lifestyle is incompatible with the gospel, it is not human'.  Offensive!  But that is implicitly what we are saying.

Of course, we are saying it to everyone, not just those who practice a certain lifestyle, and not just those outside the church.  Still, sexuality is a point at which it is particularly painful, because it is so close to the heart of an individual's identity.  The Christian message threatens to take their identity away, by telling them they are not really who they think they are at all.  What insecurity this threatens!  And what offence!

The flip-side is that if the gospel is true, then I am told who I really am, and can relax.  I have no need to forge my own identity, assert my own individuality, or even wrestle with my own inner contradictions to quite the same extent.  Who I am is decided elsewhere, and I am in a sense graciously given to myself to enjoy.


  1. I didn't read this when it was first posted, which I am sorry about, because it makes a number of important and valuable points. The first is ecclesiological: it is possible to be a Christian and not agree with this 'implication of an implication'. Whatever our position on the issue, the tendency to unchurch people over it is contrary to the gospel. The second is pastoral: the new identity the believer is given in Christ should enable the believer, in some sense, to 'relax' - if it simply adds to their 'messed-upness', it also is contrary to the gospel.

    I always enjoy reading what you write. Thank you for it!

  2. Hi Liam,

    I was surprised this one didn't attract more attention, to be honest! I thought I was being controversial. Maybe I just didn't communicate it very well.

    I think I partially agree with your comments, but perhaps not as wholeheartedly as you'd like. Yes, it is possible to be a Christian and not agree with this particular position. Still, an implication of an implication of the gospel still has its roots in the gospel, and so it matters. And of course, what most people would 'unchurch' people for is not so much their line on sexuality but the attitude toward Scriptural authority which often lies behind that. The issue is more complex than is often made out (what issue isn't?) but that doesn't mean I can take an agnostic stance toward it.

    On the second point, again, yes - the gospel enables us to relax. But only in so far as we accept the 'given identity' that we have in Christ. In fact, I would say the gospel is seriously disruptive to my identity, and certainly will contribute to my messed-upness, in every area of my life where I seek to maintain my own identity over against that which is spoken to me in the word of God.

    That latter point needs some careful pastoral thought, and requires delicate application, but I wouldn't want to discard it.

  3. I agree with all of that. The issue of 'scriptural authority' I might express slightly differently, mainly out of a desire to make clear that the authority of Scripture is ultimately God's authority, but other than that we seem (at least in what we have said here!) to be of one mind.