The conversation about the Definition of Marriage at Skyline Church Sunday night, July 29, 2012, was held, at least on the surface, in a civil atmosphere. Below the surface there were, however, some strong emotions at work, which was to be expected.
My main interest in attending was to observe Robert Gagnon, the very Calvinistic Presbyterian theologian in action, to note his strategy in such a public presentation and to evaluate the coherence of his arguments. Gagnon has a virtual cult status as an exegete among his evangelical and fundamentalist followers, but it should be noted that North American Calvinist evangelical theology is not a theology shared by theologians at academic institutions in Europe and also not by a good many North American academic theologians. To claim, as pastor Garlow did, that Gagnon is considered to be THE exegetical authority on what the Bible says about homosexuality is not accurate.
Gagnon’s methodology Sunday night was to present a rapid barrage of Scriptural statements and theological claims – so many, in fact, that it would be impossible to comment on them all. By using that methodology Gagnon, in effect, made it virtually impossible to engage in any meaningful discussion about his assertions. I shall attempt to identify a few of his assertion and make a preliminary critique of them. To begin with Gagnon asserted that the Bible, both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, uniformly condemn homosexuality. That may or may not be the case, depending of your exegetical method. On that basis he went on to elevate his biblical exegesis as the beginning and end of all there is to understand and say about homosexuality. Consigned to outer darkness is any insight we may have about homosexuality (and, for that matter, human sexuality) from disciplines such as: history, philosophy, sociology, biology, psychology, and the personal experiences of gays and lesbians – – – UNLESS they inform us negatively. What we are left with is a sense that the Bible means to enforce a loathing, disgust and aversion about gays and lesbians because God condemns gay and lesbian sexuality. It was quite revealing that when Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas asked Gagnon how he would honor the love and commitment she has found among members of the Cathedral who have been in a loving and supportive gay relationship for many years, Gagnon rejected that there was anything to honor.
Gagnon based his argument that the only biblically permissible form of sexuality is sex between a man and a woman. Males and females united sexually represent a complementary wholeness. – – – That is a poor argument because it reduces human sexuality to a level of biological mating, leaving out some of the most important factors that take human sexuality from mere biological mating and turns in into a part of the way in which humans honor and care for one another. In fact, Gagnon made a great deal out of asserting that biologically males could not relate in a loving and caring way to other males. What he did not say was that males supposedly always are aggressive and inherently promiscuous and that is, in his opinion, why male homosexual relationships cannot work. Without going into any depth he asserted that it was different in lesbian relationships. Professor Gagnon must have been very selective in his reading of sources. No wonder that one the debaters characterized Gagnon’s sources as “junk science”.
Gagnon was not averse to using philosophical arguments to bolster his claims. They all seemed to be of the sort “if – – – then – – -“. It is one way of using Aristotelian logic, but in order for his arguments to have any kind of truth value his premises must be true. – – – And herein lies the problem. His logic is of the same kind as the following: (a) Robert Gagnon cannot fly; (b) A stone cannot fly; ERGO: Robert Gagnon is a stone. Indeed, the formality of the argument is right – but it is utter nonsense because his premises are faulty.
Gagnon treated his version of Biblical exegesis as if it was on the same level as science. “The Bible says all we need to know about homosexuality”; “Jesus condemns homosexuality implicitly because he observed the Law”. Here Gagnon is in deep trouble. One maxim in evaluating a scientific statement is to use Karl Poppers theory of falsification. Here is my simplified version: FOR A STATEMENT TO BE SCIENTIFIC IT MUST ALWAYS BE OPEN TO FALSIFICATION. Example: “All swans are white”. Is this a scientific statement? Yes, because we can never observe all swans at the same time so it is possible that there is a black swan somewhere. The statement can be falsified. It is a scientific statement. (A trivial one, of course, but scientific nevertheless).
Gagnon’s claim that the Bible always condemns homosexuality and that it can be proved by doing exegesis of the proper scriptures is not scientific because Gagnon does allow for falsification. Other exegetes who may disagree with Gagnon’s exegesis as already excluded. Gagnon is left inside a hermetically closed argument that is not based on objective science nor on (if that is possible) an objective reading of the Bible.
In contrast to Gagnon, bishop Gene Robinson quoted Jesus’ Johannine promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to lead his followers into all truth. Robinson made the significant point of asking: “When do I know that I hear the voice of God and when is it my own ego masquerading as the voice of God?” This was obviously not a scientific statement, but is has the virtue that we could treat it as such. It correlates to a high degree with Popper’s theory of falsification. Robinson’s statement is a open statement, in principle and open to falsification (it could be his own ego, or he could be stark, raving mad). Science will not help us to answer Robinson’s question.
May gays and lesbians in the Church may well ask variations of Robinson’s question and although science cannot help us to answer it, we can find verification in the collective gay and lesbian experience they have of God’s nurturing love for them both in the Logos (Scripture and the living Christ); in the sacraments; in the transforming life in the Body of Christ, in the people of God on a pilgrimage to reconciled union with God. This seems to me to be far more persuasive of what God is up to in the world than the what Gagnon’s angry God is up to.
Fr. Bjorn Marcussen
Fr. Bjorn Marcussen is the interim priest-in-charge of Latina – Latino Ministry at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego. He is a retired priest of the Diocese of San Diego. Before retirement he was Rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Lemon Grove, where he developed the largest Spanish speaking community in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego. Fr. Marcussen is an ordained old catholic priest, the Union of Utrecht of Old Catholic Churches. These are national churches in Europe that split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 18. and 19. Centuries over issues of growing papal central leadership as well as the introduction of new dogmas about the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary and Papal Infallibility and Universal Jurisdiction. The Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht have since 1931 been in full communion with the Church of England and since 1946 with the Episcopal Church.
Fr. Marcussen transferred into the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego in January of 2000. His interest lies in systematic theology and the theology of the early Church of the first millenium. He has for a number of years critically followed the way US evangelicals do theology and interpret Scripture. He is especially critical of the theology and exegesis of the ultra Calvinist seminary professor Robert Gagnon. Wherever people stand on the issue of gays and lesbians in the Church, the evangelical/fundamentalist mode of interpreting Scripture leads to a theology that “has all the answers” rather than the understanding of Scripture as a guide that leads us into all truth in a balance between Scripture, Holy Tradition and Reason.