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Saturday, April 13, 2019

Transgenderism And Paul’s Epistles–Returning To An Originalist Interpretation Of The Bible

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:27)

That verse from the Bible would seem clear, unambiguous, and straightforward; and for centuries it was never questioned.  It has been taken as a matter of faith and secular common sense for the 2500 years since it was written by Hebrew scholars during the Babylonian exile and codified after their safe return to Jerusalem.  Only recently has it been questioned.   The Bible, say post-modern deconstructionists, is nothing but text, equal to all others and valid only for its cultural markers.  Genesis, like all other books of the Old and New Testaments are simply reflections of the current cosmology, myth, psychology, and the socio-political environment.   The words of the Bible are not God’s nor received wisdom.  They are only relevant in light of the culture, society, politics, and beliefs of the time in which they were written.

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All well and good, except that modern Christians and Jews cannot so easily dismiss the Bible as relative text.  Even if it is not to be taken literally, it is divinely inspired.  Interpretation – exegesis – has its limits.  While religious scholars study the books of New and Old Testaments using linguistic, social, textual, literary, and source criticism – modern tools of the trade – they do so only to explicate the Word of God, not to challenge it. 

At the same time, the Bible’s many references to sex, sexuality, and the roles of men, women, slaves, and children are disturbing to all but the most fundamentalist reader.  The Epistles of Paul are especially troubling, for there are many passages through his letters which are unequivocal about the proper configurations of society.  For the new Church to grow, Paul knew, there could be no doctrinal dissension in the ranks, no squabbling over position and authority, and no disruptive anti-social behavior.  Paul’s words were meant both to illuminate the Gospels and the word of Christ but to assure obedience, order, and unity; and he was at his rationalization of the two.  One’s social rank, sex, or position in family and society mean nothing.   Patriarchy, servitude, and secular markers of class, status, and power are irrelevant since only obedience to and faith in God matter.

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This thought is not dissimilar from Hindu theology.  Since the world is only maya, illusion, the constructs of society have no permanence nor any purpose other than to provide the social order necessary to free the individual to follow the one and only true purpose to existence – spiritual evolution.  While some of these social constructs may seem unfair or unjust to the secularist, the devout Hindu or Christian will see them as only random rules of order, neither good nor bad, but only to provide a useful context within which the individual pursues his own particular path to God.  Introducing social disorder into a well-established, orderly philosophical system can only distract from life’s only purpose.

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The brilliance of Paul was to anticipate this tension between God’s word and secular issues.  He takes great pains in his letters to show how the configurations of society reflect God’s vision. The nuclear family, for example, was a microcosm of the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit of both.  Procreation was a human Genesis, divinely conceived and absolute.  Adultery, sexual promiscuity, and homosexuality were not only against the moral code (designed to keep social order) but against God’s original creation.

Paul went further, suggesting that the new covenant promised by Christ represented ‘a new Creation’ – a final dismissal of the aberrant ways of secular society and the establishment of a new, more productive relationship between God and Man.

Herbert Marcuse, influential Marxist philosopher of the 40s and 50s and one of the founders of Deconstructionism was eloquent in his denial of any such divine codification, received wisdom, or absolute faith.  He was particularly clear in his views about sexuality. 

For Marcuse, the engine of liberation, political as well as personal, is the embrace of “primary narcissism,” the repudiation of the “repressive order of procreative sexuality,” and the triumph of “polymorphous perversity.” Eros and Civilization, the curious book in which Marcuse formulated this gospel of apocalyptic infantilization, was published in 1955. It could have been published yesterday (New Criterion April 2019)

The current transgender movement in the United States and elsewhere is the logical outgrowth of Marcuse’s vision.  Not only should individuals reject the oppressiveness of marriage and conventional sexuality but embrace the most outrageously non-conventional forms of it.  Marcuse would have been delighted at today’s gender spectrum where anything goes, his ‘polymorphous perversity’ the new normal.   Paul would have been appalled – not because he was bound by the conservative traditions of the 1st century, but because of this ‘apocalyptic infantilization’ and hyper-individualism which counter the very principles of singular, spiritual purpose.

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Professors at many divinity schools are at great pains to rationalize Paul’s epistles and the verses of both Old and New Testaments with modern, secularist concerns.  Not only are divinity students forced to question the intent of Paul and the writers of the Gospels, but to view the New Testament first through a 21st century lens and then to explain away the obvious contradictions found in the Bible.  This is the exact reverse of traditional Christian teaching which attempted to explain why the homilies, parables, and discourses of Paul and the writers of the Gospels had particular relevance to today.

Rather than discuss Paul’s references to female obedience, dress, and behavior within the larger theological context intended by the Apostle; these newly politicized professors insist that students should simply ignore them as culturally-bound and irrelevant.  An instructor at a well-known Methodist seminary asked her students to look at the story of the Samaritan woman at the well first and foremost through the lens of social justice.  The fable was not about ‘the water of life’, Jesus’ offering of eternal salvation, but about the socio-political implications of the encounter between a Jew (Jesus) and a low-class, inferior, unclean Samaritan woman.  While the lesson of Jesus’ tolerance, acceptance, and generosity is essential to interpreting the story, it is only a  subtheme to the more important, essential theological issues.

But  whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14)

Such secular readings not only divert attention from Christ’s far more important messages of salvation, but suggest that secularism should always be a ‘virtuous rival’ to theology.  Slowly, surely, and progressively the Bible becomes less a book of theology and moral instruction and more a text of relative value.  Given its iconic, central importance to Western thought and culture, it cannot be dismissed entirely; but the more its principles are configured to justify current, temporal political convictions, the less influential it becomes; which, of course, was the whole intent of Marcuse – to marginalize, de-mythologize, and dismiss the Bible itself.

Arguments for a more conservative, originalist interpretation of the Bible are not meant to be apologia for the oppression of women or the dismissal of alternative gender realities; but a return to fundamental interpretation.  When stripped of socio-political and cultural wrappings, what are the essential principles and lessons taught by Jesus Christ and his Apostles?  Why was the heterosexual, procreative family so important to Christ’s teachings and so central to Paul’s reiteration and interpretation of them? What is the underlying, fundamental instruction about the theological nature of human reproductivity that should not be ignored?

Looked at this way, the seeming contradictions within the Bible become more understandable.  Individuals, particular societal configurations, and specific behaviors are integral parts of Creation; but not necessarily indicative of any implicit good, higher value, or permanence.  While transgender activists may legitimately promote social inclusion and tolerance, a movement to promote a universal and absolute recasting of sexuality has its consequences – not only in creating social division, doubt, and hostility; but further eroding foundational religious principles.

Antonin Scalia, former conservative Justice of the Supreme Court, called himself an ‘originalist’.  He believed in reading the words of the Constitution and extracting their central, philosophical, and judicial meaning – i.e. universal principles enunciated by the Founding Fathers to persist over time and be resistant to historical influences.  Man’s rights were God-given and ineradicable; and it was the job of the Supreme Court to judge on essentiality, not temporality.  His liberal colleagues on the Court strongly differed. Although the Constitution espouses fundamental principles, there is no such thing as universal values, universally applied.  One has to interpret given the times.

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Originalist interpreters of the Bible attempt to do what Scalia did with the Constitution – remove cultural overlays to get to the essential, spiritual or theological message of the text; to get as closely as possible to the original intent of the work.  Whether one agrees with that intent is another story altogether but the attempt to do justice to nearly 3000 year-old seminal piece of human culture and discourse on human nature is necessary.

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