Cynthia Bourgeault on Homosexuality in the Bible
How you answer this question depends hugely on what you take the Bible to be. IF you believe that the Bible is a single, timeless, internally consistent teaching on matters of human morality dictated by God himself, then yes, the Old Testament book of Leviticus is definitely uncomfortable with homosexuality. But it is also uncomfortable with menstruating women, shellfish, and pigskin. (And for the record, it has some very harsh words to say about lending money at interest, a prohibition that even Biblical literalists seem to find it perfectly permissible to disregard!)
Like most other critically thinking Christians, I see the Bible as a symphony (sometimes a cacophony!) of divinely inspired human voices bearing witness to an astonishing evolutionary development in our human understanding of God (or God’s self-disclosure as we grow mature enough to begin to comprehend it, another way of saying the same thing). The Old Testament, whose 46 books span well over a millennium in their dates of composition, also straddles what scholars call “The First Axial Period,” when spontaneously, across the entire globe, human spiritual consciousness seemed to take a huge evolutionary leap forward. In the same time frame that the Biblical psalms were being composed, the planet was also being graced with the Buddha, Lao-Tse, Zoaroaster, and Plato: a quantum leap in human understanding and ethical vision. It simply defies credibility—my credibility, anyway!— to believe that the early Old Testament teachings on animal sacrifice and “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” are at the same level as Ezekiel’s luminous axial prophecy, “I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” or Jesus’ stunning “Love your enemy; bless those who revile you.”
This is not in any way to demean holiness of the Bible, but only to affirm that God reveals Godself in time, through process and dialogue, not in unchanging monolithic statements. This does not make the Bible less sacred; it makes it more sacred, for it grounds God’s divine presence in the lived reality of our human experience.
As a Christian I am bound, when I listen to this diversity of Biblical voices, to set my compass by the teachings and the path walked by Jesus himself. Where Biblical testimony is internally inconsistent (and even Jesus experienced it this way!), I am bound to honor Jesus as my final court of appeal. And thus, the bottom line must inescapably be that nowhere does Jesus condemn homosexuality, and certainly nowhere does he wish harm upon anyone, even those whom the religious culture is so quick to condemn as sinners. His harsh words are reserved entirely for those whose certainty about their religious rectitude causes them to condemn others, or to block the Spirit’s persistent attempts to open up new channels of forgiveness and hope. Jesus is all about inclusion, forgiveness, and empowerment. In the light of his compassionate presence, people are set free to live their lives in strength and hope, regardless of whether they be considered outcasts by those in the “religious know.”
Thus, as a Christian, when confronted by a tension between a religious certainty which leads me to violate the law of love and a deep unknowing that still moves in the direction of “loving my neighbor as myself,” I am bound to choose the latter course. Was it not the Pharisees, those so sure that they had “the law and Moses on their side,” who were the first to condemn Jesus to the grave? And make no mistake: The word Pharisees does not mean “the Jews”; that utterly reprehensible piece of scapegoating was a product of the early Christian church. Rather, “Pharisee” names the spiritual sclerotic in each one of us who would prefer the certainty of an unchanging rulebook to the radical open-endedness of God’s ongoing self-revelation in love.
If I really follow what the Bible teaches, it seems to me that I need to be constantly laying my human arrogance (and in Latin, this word comes from “a-rogo,” or “I have no questions”), upon the altar of God’s constantly demonstrated delight in new beginnings. “I will be what I will be,” is the name he asked Moses to know him by in the book of Exodus. With that as one line of bearing on my thinking, and the steadily increasing revelation of God’s mercy and compassion as the other, I am compelled by my Christianity to refrain from any behaviors or judgments which arrogantly demean the dignity of another human being, or cause him or her to lose hope.
—Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer, and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada. Her most recent book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, is now available.
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