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Derek Penwell Headshot

A Precedent Is a Precedent... Until It's Not

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Society’s attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender identity are changing. Inexorably. And even though there’s a historical precedent in Christianity opposing the affirmation of LGBT people, the prospect of such a change shouldn’t trouble Christians. A precedent is a precedent … until it isn’t.

Here’s what I’d like to propose: In Christianity, truth is whatever Christians decline to argue about at any moment.1

Stop howling for a moment, and think about it. Such a claim is merely a more rhetorically interesting way of saying:

“I used to think that, but I don’t anymore.”

We can all say that. Even the most conservative among us has to admit that we’re all subject to that kind of modification.

Watch how it works: I used to think that Pepsi was better than Coke, Superman was better than Batman, and Foreigner was better than the Rolling Stones.

I’ve grown, though. And anyway, these are matters of taste, which are highly subject to change for everyone. Not much turns on my particular fancies. Nobody’s ox is gored because I prefer regular over decaf.

But it’s not just matters of taste that change. We could say the same thing about something firmer, more epistemologically anchored like science, couldn’t we?

  • We used to believe that the body was made up of four liquids (or humors) that determined temperament and health.

  • We used to believe that the heavens were a series of celestial spheres that rotated around the earth, and in which were embedded the planets and the stars.

  • We used to believe that space in the universe was filled with æther.

But we don’t anymore. Ways of construing the world in which we live, like the Phlogiston Theory or Alchemy or Newtonian physics, survived for a time as the conventional wisdom of an age (and in some cases, several ages). But the fund of accepted knowledge evolves--not a particularly contentious claim.

In fact, in our technological age we expect that what we presently believe about the world will necessarily be different in ten years--a relatively recent realization of the provisional nature of our understanding. Even a seemingly uncontroversial thing like a “fact” is only as solid as the latest research or the newest discovery.

“Ah, that’s all well and good,” you say, “as long as we’re dealing with taste, or even knowledge. Morality, on the other hand, is another thing. There has to be objective truth; otherwise, we descend into relativism.”

But you see, even here, it’s possible to say with a straight ethical face, “I used to think that, but I don’t anymore.” Some of the fixed verities of the Christian moral life (and the Biblical interpretations that have underwritten them) turn out to be much more pliable than we generally like to admit.

  • There was a time when--following Aristotle’s understanding of women as merely “infertile males” (Generation of Animals, 728a), namely, as sperm-receiving passive homunculus incubators--Christians thought it altogether acceptable to view women as chattel to be bartered and sold, and later to write coverture laws that rendered women legally (not to mention politically and theologically) non-existent beings. (“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” [Eph. 5:22]. It’s in the book.)

  • There was a time in our history when Christians argued the self-evident nature of the acceptability of slavery, based on reference to the Bible. (Abraham had slaves. Paul accepted the reality of slavery. What more do you need? It’s in the book.)

  • There was a time in our recent past when the thinking of Leon Bazile (trial judge in Loving v. Virginia) on interracial marriage carried the weight of conventional wisdom among many Christians: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” (It’s not in the book, but a lot of Christians thought--and some still think--it should have been.)

The point, of course, is that any appeal to tradition and precedent bumps up against the irritating realization that traditions change and precedents give way to new realities--even traditions and precedents based on the Bible. And while some may worry that such a claim leaves us open to the potential moral chaos of relativism, all I’m trying to point out is that it isn’t a “claim”; it’s a “fact.”

Even something as solid as “truth” (even truth based on the Bible) changes. Or, if that sentence leaves you too squeamish, we still have to admit that our understanding of truth evolves.

As we approach some sort of resolution to the argument about the affirmation of LGBT people in our culture, the question we must answer isn’t about how traditions based on the Bible could be subject to change, but--judging by the history of intellectual and moral development--how could anyone have ever thought they weren’t?

  1. This is a paraphrase of Clay Shirky’s paraphrase of Richard Rorty. ↩