Paul’s remarks on same-sex relations in his letter to the Romans is only an illustration of his main point. To understand the relation of this passage to our present-day lives, I don’t think it is necessary to go on and on about how the first century understood sexuality or the sorts of perversions that may have put Paul off. The overriding question is, Is Paul correct in his main point?
Paul writes that what can be known about God is perfectly plain to human beings, since God has made it plain to them. Ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things. And so these people have no excuse: they knew God and yet they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but their arguments became futile and their uncomprehending minds were darkened (NJB).
Thus, Paul believes that the power of God is fully evident in the created order. And his implicit suggestion that we meditate on creation in order to experience the mystery of God is a good one. It sounds much like the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, in which one focuses intently on the present moment in order to experience existence most fully. But although such practice unites mystics of many traditions, mindfulness yields only experience, not explanations or doctrines. Our beliefs about God are based on what we have been told, what we have read, and what we have come to understand through our own experience. Even members of the same tradition often differ in their beliefs. Theologians of different cultures may differ radically.
So just WHEN was it that the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power was seen clearly by human understanding? Perhaps Paul is thinking of Noah, when presumably the whole of surviving humankind had talked with God and experienced his deliverance. But Noah is a story, not history. We know of no golden age of agreement on the nature and purposes of God.
People in the Americas, in Asia, in Africa, have come up with many different stories about their experience of the mystery of existence. There is no evidence that meditating on creation will necessarily yield a clear understanding of God — that is, an understanding that agrees with Paul’s. Neither reason nor history supports Paul’s theory that at some point humankind should or could have known God but instead turned away to worship mere creatures. And today we have evidence and experience that some people of the same sex never know the more usual experience of heterosexuality but are made to bond with one another emotionally.
Paul says that people who should have known the truth of God in his creation instead turned to worship of creatures — idolatry. As an example of this he cites people who should have known the truth of sexual relationships — heterosexuality — but who turned instead to lust for others of the same sex. Experience, however, shows us that creation does not automatically reveal Paul’s God, and sexuality is not inevitably expressed in heterosexuality. Paul shared the common human belief that whatever seemed clear and right to him should be clear to others, and if it wasn’t, they were just fighting it. But in this case, his premise is wrong, and his illustration of it is wrong in the same way.
It is ironic that people who want to use this passage against those with whom they disagree actually do what the passage condemns. Instead of meditating on creation and seeing what it reveals of God (and creation includes plenty of straight and gay love), they have turned to the worship of a creature — the written word — and their uncomprehending minds have been darkened so that they serve an ideology rather than love their neighbors as themselves. Ironic too that the Sodom story, often used against gay people, was actually (according to Jesus, for whatever his teaching is worth) a condemnation of people who do not protect but abuse the strangers in their midst.
I don’t believe any longer that it is useful to assume that the Bible is correct and to argue about its interpretation. The Bible is wrong about many things. It describes a flat earth throughout. The seed — the complete new life — comes from the male and the woman is only a field where the seed is planted. Two different stories are told about Jesus’ birth; they are both inspirational, but they cannot both be true. Stories of the resurrection do not agree as to times and characters involved. Paul’s mention of it, the earliest reference we have, declares that it was a spiritual event with nothing of the physical about it. Slavery is accepted in the scriptures, but Christians gradually came to believe that the freedom and equality promised in the Christian community were incompatible with one person’s owning others.
William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, once said that we do not honor tradition by parroting or repeating it, but by understanding its principles and applying them constantly in the changing conditions of our own time
Jesus gave women prominence among his disciples, and he lived and worked among the outcast and the despised. Even before the Christian scriptures were completed, this scandalous challenge to the conventional social order was being played down. Today, as our present-day social order breaks down, we are looking with new eyes on what Jesus actually taught and practiced. He stood, above all, for compassion and justice, expressed most clearly in his new commandment that we love one another.
Murdoch Matthew works in publishing in New York City and worships at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Times Square.