Oriented to Faith | Review & Notes

Tim Otto. Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships. Cascade Books, 2014. (132 pages)

REVIEW

Is it possible to not “take sides?” Is it reasonable to avoid polarizing conclusions for a higher value of unity, and charity in the Church? Is the debate over sexuality actually an opportunity?

These are the kinds of questions that Otto tackles in this book, encouraging the reader to steer clear of polarization, “winning,” the “self-righteous desire to be right,” and rather lean into the central and core truths of Christ’s message: discipleship, love, family, and reconciliation. I confess that I very much appreciate Otto’s posture, his grounded sense of faith, and his captivating generosity and welcome towards all Christians, regardless of their “beliefs” on this topic. And when he critiques, he does so with a kindness and magnanimity that is truly beautiful.

However, the general conclusions he draws are dissatisfying, falling short of a true resolution to the divisions and fracturing he is addressing.

Ah, and therein lies the rub.

Is the only way for reconciliation to happen is for all “sides” to be ultimately dissatisfied with any clarity or conclusions to the ethical and moral dilemmas that we’re facing?

For example, one of Otto’s conclusive remarks states,

If we are to exercise liberty and charity in the church, then it is crucial for church members to identify the debate over homosexuality as one that is a “non-essential” to the faith. (113)

The problem is that this is the very point that is being argued. This issue, for many conservative Christians is an essential to their Christian doctrine. Otto goes on to say,

For both sides, the goal of bringing difference together into unity is the same. Recognizing both sides of the debate are pointing to the biblical story of the Triune God may help conservatives and liberals have empathy for one another. (113)

But are they really telling the same “biblical story of the Triune God?” For many liberal Christians, the story is not the same, but ever changing, and radically evolving to meet new times and new place with new people.

There is a contingency ultimately woven into Otto’s main thesis: we’re all going to have to let some things go. The problem is that the things to which we all hold are too deeply connected to core convictions, core beliefs, and core faith practices. It may be that we are all called to simplify our arguments, and attempt to rebuild a commonality that is distinctly different from the “positions” we hold. It may be that this is all together possible, and that we could take this opportunity to transform the ultimate way in which various factions of the Church relate to one another. It may be. But what Otto is asking of us is far bigger, far more rooted than what I think is realized in this book.

Anecdotally and personally, in my quest for understanding, in my journey of asking deeper and more radical (“rooted”) questions of life and faith, I have experienced that my mere asking of questions has ostracized me from a variety of faith communities (the very ones I’ve loved and served). My inclination towards investigation are suspect, and I have been tagged with labels that promote an aversion to my ministry and faith practice. I have been disappointed at my attempts to construct a capacious Christian expression that is welcoming to Christians who hold differing views from me, only to be rejected by those who hold different views. It is to this reality that am appreciative of what Otto has offered, and I pray Otto’s voice is extended.

Thanks to Otto for this thought-provoking offering. Further critical reflections are interwoven below.


NOTES

Foreword by Shane Claiborne

Preface

Introduction

…to borrow a metaphor from Oliver O’Donovan, the “right or wrong” question may, like a breech birth, put the whole matter at the wrong angle. We may need to turn the question before any helpful answer can be delivered. (xvi)

How Is God at Work?

Following Jack Bernard’s example, rather than latching onto whether same-sex relationships are right or wrong, a better initial question might be: how is God working for the good? How is God working for the good through the controversy in the church around homosexuality? How is God working for the good through Christians who identify themselves as LGBT? (xvi)

The question, “how is God working for the good?” also helps us journey towards a more complete picture of God’s will. (xvi)

Obeying all the rules won’t get us home. Asking, “how is God working for the good?” does not focus on a single piece of knowledge, but on our overall direction: “Which way is home, and what will it look like when we get there?” (xvii)

Wrestling towards Blessing

After hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours of reading, prayer, and conversation, I’ve come to believe that the central arguments of both the left and the right are based on the faulty story of the Enlightenment rather than the Christian story,… Coming to a final “answer” as to the morality of same-sex unions is far more difficult than most of us imagine. (xviii)

I didn’t write this book to change your view, but rather to consider how this debate might be an opportunity for the church to be transformed for the better, rather than flounder in an occasion for more division. (xviii)

Odd, Generous Blessings to the World

A Difficult Curriculum

1 Remembering Pain

Tell me how much you know of the sufferings of others and I will tell you how much you have loved them. – Helmut Thielicke

Choice

…my peers taught me the words with which I would hate myself. (x)

A Life Paragraph

Living the Victorious Christian Life

Shame

I didn’t just feel guilty about doing something bad, I felt the shame of feeling that my very being was bad. (5)

I don’t think the solution to our problems is simply a matter of choosing the “right” position. Whether liberal (affirming) or conservative (traditional), we can all reflect on the debate about homosexuality and seek to faithfully incarnate Jesus rather than churning out a doctrinally “correct” position paper. (6)

2 Hitting the Jackpot

Being gay helped me by forcing me to ask deeper questions of the world than I might have otherwise, and caused me to listen carefully to Jesus because I knew that I needed help. (7)

A False Hope

Although I recognize these stories are anecdotes, and I’ve conducted no clinical trials, my sense is that “reparative therapy” creates more ex-Christians than it does ex-gays. (9)

[via: But there are plenty of other supporting voices, e.g. Alan Chambers (here and here), Michael Bussee, and others.]

Losing Lottery Ticket

3 The Bundle of Life

Jesus’ Family Values

Family in the New Testament

The Fiction of the Traditional Family

Jesus didn’t merely revise the “traditional family” with a few tweaks here and there. He revolutionized family by defining it as those who do God’s will. (17)

The Family Idol

4 The Kingdom Family

Finding Family

Coming Home

If we can agree to trust that the conflict over homosexuality is not a battle to be won, but rather an opportunity to grow, then our deepest conceptions–which are often products of our culture–might be reformed by the Christian vision. If we invite God to shape our ideas about family, we might discover what it means to be a church. (23)

5 It’s the Economy, Stupid!

I had no intention to harm the family. Rather, the very source of my pain was my exclusion from family. (25)

As I reflect on this question, it seems that divorce and changing sexual ethics are symptoms rather than causes of the struggle. Put more concretely, conservative, evangelical, “pro-family” organizations have been fighting the wrong enemy. The family was never under attack by homosexuals, but by consumer capitalism. Consumer capitalism undermines the family by:

  1. Giving us less incentive to create strong families;
  2. Promoting mobility, which weakness support for the family;
  3. Training us to see ourselves as consumers and other people as products. (26)

Money: More Reliable than Relatives

Our Western economic system has created a loss of biblical values such as faithfulness, perseverance, selflessness, and the willingness to undergo difficulty for the sake of others. To state it simply, we don’t have as much need for these values today, because our economy has made it possible to “go it alone” and shed the difficulty of relating to and relying on others. (27)

The Cost of Mobility

I’m a Consumer and You Are a Product

Our modern consumer capitalist society reaches into our hearts and mangles how we think of ourselves and others. (28)

The consumer is schooled in insatiability. He or she is never to be satisfied–at least, not for long. The consumer is tutored that people basically consist of unmet needs that can be appeased by commodified goods and experiences. Accordingly, the consumer should think first and foremost of himself or herself and meeting his or her felt needs. The consumer is taught to value above all else freedom, freedom defined as a vast array of choices. – “Why the Devil Takes Visa,” by Rodney Clapp

But are we also buying into the expectations that we have for online business transactions? If I don’t like the person I ordered, can I return him or her? And if I find a better, newer model in a couple of years, an I return the outmoded one? What if my mate is defective? Sexually incompatible? Depressed? Do I get a one- or two-year warranty? (29)

[via: This comparison fails to distinguish the nuances of bond and product. Do people at their deepest levels process this way simply because of “online” mediums? My inquiry, at least.]

It is one thing to travel those circles of Hell a time or two, but our economic system is pushing us to do daily laps of discontent and dissatisfaction. (30)

[via: cf. The Hacking of the American Mind by Lustig.]

6 Gospel Economics

In the Far East there is a traditional image of the difference between heaven and hell. In hell, the ancients said, people have chopsticks one yard long so they cannot possibly reach their mouths. In heaven, the chopsticks are also one yard long–but, in heaven, the people feed one another. – Joan Chittister

All Things in Common

An Openhanded Culture

The Gift of Stability

Abundantly Satisfied

Given over to God

More than anything I want to get, I wanted to give myself completely to God. I began to wonder about this logic in other parts of my life. Was it possible that even more than wanting to get love, I wanted to give love? That even more than wanting to et thanked, I wanted to give thanks? That even more than wanting to be esteemed, I wanted to esteem others? (36)

Using Money to Love People–Not the Other Way Around

As followers of Christ, we need to stop blaming homosexuality for the destruction of family and marriage in our culture. Instead, we need to repent for the ways we buy into the logic of the market–which poses the most potent threat to the family–and in so doing, seek to heal the church, the broken family of God. (37)

7 Sacrificial Power

While all the versions of the kingdom of the world acquire and exercise power over others, the kingdom of God, incarnated and modeled in the person of Jesus Christ, advances only by exercising power under others. It expands by manifesting the power of self-sacrificial, Calvary-like love. – Pastor Gregory Boyd

Costly Righteousness

Yet if the religious right had wanted to promote a “biblical view” of marriage, they could have campaigned for stricter divorce laws. … the conservative Christian proposition was aimed at a small group of gays and lesbians who had to bear the cost of their moral vision. (39)

[via: This is not a very strong argument, for there are avenues by which divorce is an option in the Bible.]

As the country becomes more tolerant of homosexuality, the left may make the religious right pay dearly for its ethic. (39)

[via: meh…?]

Power Politics

Kingdom Politics

“Isn’t it to legislate that non-Christians live as if Jesus is Lord, when Christians don’t live as if Jesus is Lord?” (41)

Powers of Preservation and Love

Ekklesia: A Community of Blessing

Discerning God’s Way in Love

The word [ekklesia], has its roots in the political realm. The word was coined in Athens, Greece as that city-state experimented with democracy. The ekklesia referred to the gathering of citizens who voted on and decided how to live together as a city (polis). This term also explains the most basic meaning of the word politics: the way a group lives together. (44)

A New of Way of Life

A Body Politic

Citizens of God’s Kingdom

I was able to imagine celibacy not only being possible, but good, in the context of community. It meant a life without sex, but not without love. It meant a life without a nuclear family, but not without sisters and brothers, elders and children, neighbors and friends in abundance. I was loved and challenged to love. (49)

Water to Swim In

Because most churches don’t live in a way that makes the ethic they are espousing possible, our churches are asking people to swim in air rather than providing the water to make swimming possible. (50)

9 Biblical Sexuality: An Occasion for Joy

Towards a Theology of Sex

By faith I believe that the debate about same-sex relationships is a gift that invites the church to think well about a theology of sex. (53)

Reflecting God’s Image Through Unitive Sex

Sex is sacred and mysterious. It mixes people together into a holy unity and, at its (55) best, testifies to what God is like. A Christian sexual ethic demands that we respect the unifying function of sex. (56)

The Blessing of Knowing and Being Known

Unitive Sex and Homosexuality

It is fine to report that theologians throughout the ages have built a beautiful theology of sex based on the created order of two sexes–and the mating of those two sexes images God. But what if intersex and homosexual humans are part of the created order of things? In this case, it is not modern theologians who are ignoring the reality of our bodies, but rather past theologians who failed to notice the true contours of creation. (57)

Reflecting God’s Image through Procreative Sex

The Blessing of Bearing Life

Understanding the procreative aspect of sex has helped me realize that even though I am celibate, I can nonetheless participate in a positive sexuality. I can be “sexually active” as I use my body to love others through acts of service. Expressing my sexuality in these ways helps alleviate my desire for genital sex without dismissing or ignoring the sexual desire God has given to me as a gift. (60

[via: So, I really appreciate with Otto is doing here, and it’s really a refreshing perspective. However, this sentiment, logically, is a bit too simplistic and a non-sequitur of other sentiments in the book, most directly the quote above from page 57.]

Procreative Sex and Homosexuality

Jesus taught the offensive idea that family consists of those who do God’s will, (61) rather than biological relations. In the revolutionary ethic of Jesus, recruits become more important than offspring. (62)

| For Jesus, and eventually Paul, reliance on family ties for salvation was a potential stumbling block to the way of faith and obedience. Jesus’s command is not “be fruitful and multiply,” but “go therefore and make disciples” (Matt 28:19a). For Jesus, it is not enough to be born an Israelite, but one must be “born from above” (John 3:7). Thus the New Testament never recommends sex for the purpose of making babies, but always emphasizes making disciples. (62)

[via: Well observed.]

Both celibacy and marriage are possible ways of living out a Christian sexual ethic. But is the way of marriage open to same-sex couples? The answer to this question is ultimately a matter of faith rather than certainty. This may seem like an odd claim, given how strongly I’ve argued for celibacy or monogamous marriage as the only Christian options. But humility is essential as we wrestle with the question of same-sex marriage. (64)

[via: Again, there’s appreciation for what Otto is doing here. However, by leaving the question relegated to “a matter of faith rather than certainty,” he eliminates any relevance of the core question that is being wrestled with. There is, essentially no ethic by which this question can be satisfactorily answered. In addition, isn’t everything “a matter of faith rather than certainty?” And, as the saying goes, “if everything is _, then nothing is _.”]

10 Walking Humbly with God

Yuck?

Postmodernism helps us humbly recognize that truth is not “right there” for the taking. Rather, we interpret things through the lens of our upbringing, education, culture, religion, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Thus we’ve got to be careful about our presuppositions and interpretive lenses before asserting something is “true.” Postmodernism helps us admit that sometimes our declarations about truth are power moves designed to help us feel superior to or control others. The antidote to this power grab is humility. (66)

Humble Faithfulness

Humility and the Enlightenment

Humility and Homosexuality

11 A Humble FIRE

There are truths we do not see when we adopt the language of radical individualism. We find ourselves not independently of other people and institutions but rather through them. – Robert Bellah, et al.

“F” is for Freedom

Thus Scripture does not advocate freedom for freedom’s sake. As Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes, “After the Western ideal of unlimited freedom, after the Marxist concept of freedom as acceptance of the yoke of necessity–here is the true Christian definition of freedom: restriction of the self for the sake of others!” [Solzhenitsyn, Under the Rubble, 136] While Scripture sees freedom as a great good, it sees the true goal of freedom as the ability to do God’s will. (70)

| For Christians, freedom in relation to homosexuality can’t simply mean freedom to “express one’s sexuality.” The question still remains, “what is God’s will in relation to our sexuality?” (70)

[via: I would be curious how Otto applies this same concept to heterosexuality. What does that “mean” for straight peoples?]

“I” is for Individualism

“R” is for Rights

“E” is for Equality

If we completely accept the logic of FIRE, then complete affirmation of same-sex relationships inevitably follows. But to think Christianly about homosexuality requires a deeper grappling with Christian tradition and Scripture than the left has done.

[via: So, first, it’s hard to know what he means by “the left.” In addition to the word “liberal,” both terms have their problems when it comes to specification. However, presuming he means “affirming Christians,” this statement falls flat. The challenge is not that affirming Christians simply accept “FIRE” as their rationale. They have grappled deeply with both Christian tradition and Scripture, and it is really critical to consider their work in that light and with that respect. (Consider Nissinen, Brownsen, Rogers, Lee, Vines, et. al.) I fully acknowledge that Otto is not necessarily doing that here, so some understanding is needed when assessing his short book. Still, I think this is important to note. (If Otto doesn’t mean that by the word “left,” then my comment, admittedly, falls flat.]

12 A Humble Biblicism

Scripture as Witness to Jesus

In short, we get it wrong when the Bible is understood as a bundle of factoids dropped from heaven to make life work out. But we might get it right when we read Scripture as a story pointing to Christ. (76)

Textbook Homosexuality

Genesis 19:1-9

Leviticus 18:22, 20:30

New Testament Passages

Romans 1:26-27

…what New Testament scholar Richard Hays calls a “homiletical sting operation,” (Moral Vision, 389) (80)

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

1 Timothy 1:9-10

If this is the case, this Scripture is not a direct condemnation of the homosexual relations of love and mutuality that we know today, but rather of a degrading system of exploitation and abuse. (83)

The Aim of Such Instruction

Experiments in Truth: The Path of Humility and Love

13 A Compassionate Traditionalism

Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair. – G. K. Chesterton

How the Traditional Church is Reading Scripture with Integrity

I urge traditionalist churches to embrace the following five practices as they journey with LGBT people in their midst.

One: Affirm LGBT People as Body Members

Two: Distinguish Between Orientation and Behavior

Three: Think Carefully about Identity Labels

Four: Celebrate Celibacy

Five: Support of Heterosexual Marriage for LGBT People

Conclusion

If the church is going to ask others to repent of a “sinful lifestyle,” then it will need to model its own repentance. Growing up gay in the church, I experienced the church’s condemnation and judgment–something Jesus rebuked far more than homosexuality! [An admittedly easy computation, since Jesus didn’t explicitly mention homosexuality even once.] (96)

The debate over homosexuality provides the conservative church with the opportunity to model one of the most fundamental of Christian practices: repentance. In doing so it might invite others to do the same. (97)

14 A Committed Affirmation

In this chapter I want to challenge the permissive sexual ethic that characterizes many progressive churches while making it clear that affirming churches might be right in blessing same-sex relationships. (99)

How the Affirming Church is Reading Scripture with Integrity

Applying this interpretive wisdom, we need to ask the question, who are the people we think of as “profane and unclean?” Historically, this has applied to people of different races, as conveyed by racial slurs such as “wetback,” “chink,” and so on, which connote “profane and unclean.” While we still have a very long way to go–and few of us readily admit the great distance we still have to travel–the church as a whole has acknowledged the problem of racism in our society and, in some quarters, is actively repenting of this sin. (100)

[via: So, no. This is not an equivalence. This is especially perplexing, as this paragraph comes right after Otto’s mentioning of James McClendon’s observation that “the task of good Bible interpretation is to recognize when ‘this is that.'” And it must be said that “this,” (profane and unclean, according to Leviticus) is NOT “that,” (modern day racial slurs and deprecations). Allow me to fully affirm that the church as a whole has “a very long way to go” to acknowledge racism and repent. But this is not the same thing as the cultic purity laws of Leviticus.]

Words such as, “queer,” faggot,” and “homo” conveyed to me the message that I was defiled, unclean, and foul. Perhaps LGBT folk are to some Christians what ancient Gentiles were to Jews. (100)

[via: Not a good equivalence. First, there are far too many diversities in antiquity as to the attitude and perspective of Gentiles by Israelites, then Jews. Second, a religious and ethnic identity (Judaism) is far different from a moral identity, which is what Otto is referring to here regarding “some Christians.”]

Nurturing Fellowship: Testifying to the Spirit’s Work

Breaking Fellowship: The Church’s First and Deepest Wound

Yet affirming Christians may be cutting themselves off from their traditionalist brothers and sisters–and also from their historic Christian roots. The permissive sexual ethic that tends to accompany the affirming position undermines relationships (of both gays and straights), subverts community, and weakens our capacity to live in covenant with God and one another. (103)

Recovering Jesus’ Revolutionary Vision: The Church

Like many religious progressives, Bass has great hopes for Christianity after organized religion, Christianity after the institutional church. But I feel like we already know what that Christianity looks like: It’s the self-satisfied, self-regarding, all-too-American faith that Christian Smith and others have encountered when they survey today’s teenagers and young adults, which conceives of God as part divine butler, part cosmic therapist, and which jettisons the more challenging aspects of Christianity that the traditional churches and denominations, for all their many sins and follies, at least tried to hand down to us intact. – Ross Douthat, “Is Liberal Christianity Actually The Future?” July 25, 2012

Recovering a Committed, Self-Sacrificing Love Ethic

Regarding the conflict within the church about homosexuality, the most significant thing the affirming church can do for gays and lesbians is to recover and celebrate a love ethic that emphasizes faithfulness and commitment in the context of a robust church community. Recovering a love ethic that celebrates fidelity, commitment, and community will not only bless gays and lesbians, but it will also encourage dialogue with traditionalists and will ensure the vitality of the affirming church. (106)

[via: I’m dubious if this will “encourage dialogue with traditionalists.”]

While gay culture offers “affirmation,” it does not teach the practices of forgiveness, patience, humility, listening, and self-giving that make committed relationships of fidelity possible.

[via: Mmm, is “gay culture” a thing? And is this line true?]

15 “May All Be One”

In the midst of conflict, rather than pushing for our side to “win,” we would do well to remember Christ’s fervent prayer for Christians as he faced his execution: “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me” (John 17:23)

Disputable Disputes

The question confronts us: can the debate over same-sex relationships in the church be considered a “disputable matter”? Ken Wilson, a Vineyard Church pastor, I think rightly contends that the debate over homosexuality fits this category… (111)

[via: cf. A Letter To My Congregation pages 107-108]

In Essentials Unity

The first two clauses, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty,” stand in tension with each other. “In non-essentials liberty” reminds us that we should not let all differences drive us apart. (111)

[via: Specifically by making this a central ethic/issue.]

“A heretic is someone whose account of the Christian story is so dangerously inadequate that it’s really an altogether different story than the biblical story of the Triune God.” – Steve Harmon, Ecumenism

Agreement on Unity

Ironically, both the Christian left and right fundamentally agree that in God, difference is brought together into unity. The disagreement is over what makes for valid “difference.” (112)

Underlying Concerns

If both conservatives and liberals agree that an essential aspect of the nature of God is revealed when difference is brought together in unity, then the energy and passion behind this debate stems from underlying concerns. (113)

[via: But it is ensconced in gender.]

Similarly, the underlying issues for Christians may be, “I think your approach undermines the authority of Scripture,” or “I don’t think you are taking seriously enough the need for justice,” or “I think your position threatens my vision of family,” or “I think your position ignores equality and rights.” If the two sides can focus on their underlying concerns, they might be able to understand one another better, even if they don’t end up agreeing. Thus they can agree to disagree without undermining the unity of Christ’s church.

[via: Can they?! We’re going to need some help from Christena Cleveland on this one.]

In Non-Essentials Liberty

If we are to exercise liberty and charity in the church, then it is crucial for church members to identify the debate over homosexuality as one that is a “non-essential” to the faith. (113)

Life Together: A Taste of the Kingdom

Seeking God’s Grace Anew

Revolutionary Subordination

Because the debate is about a non-essential aspect of the Christian faith, it might be a good opportunity for individuals who disagree with the denomination’s stance to practice what theologian John Howard Yoder calls revolutionary subordination. (116)

“That the World May Believe”

16 Receiving the Kingdom

As far as I can tell, taking Jesus seriously means trying to live into his kingdom in all kinds of ways. It means yearning for the right and left to come to a real unity with each other that respects differences of opinions and the (121) people who hold them. It means getting beyond the “right” answer, beyond the idea that Christianity is mostly a morality hotline. (122)

And if that happens, it will mean more gospel, more good news for everyone. (122)

About VIA

www.kevinneuner.com

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