Channel: Guardian Author: Marilyn McCord Adams
Today’s conference – Faith, Homophobia, Transphobia and Human Rights 2009 at the Institute of Education – will raise an embarrassing question before it brainstorms solutions. The question is: why does biblical religion that sees every person as created in God’s image so easily become a sponsor of human rights violations in the area of sex and gender? In my view, there are two contributing factors. Both respond to the fact that biblical religion acknowledges a “size gap” between God and creatures: God is very, very big, and we are very, very small.
First, through the ages theology has attempted to bridge the size gap by using social analogies to conceive of who God is to us and who we are to God. The Bible says it is as if God were king, patron, husband or parent, and as if we were subject, client, wife or child. Projecting human social systems on to the heavens has advantages: it allows us to get our social bearings by reading off the role definitions what we might expect of God and what God might require of us. It also carries disadvantages. The size gap means that there are disanalogies because God is too big to squeeze into social roles of human devising. Far worse, the social systems we project on to the heavens are invariably unjust. Human beings are neither smart enough nor good enough to organise utopia. Invariably our social arrangements spawn systemic evils (eg racism, sexism, homo- and transphobia) that we did not anticipate and often do not see, with the result that they privilege some while degrading others. Assigning God roles in such societies makes God party to the injustice that they engender.
Moreover, the Bible bears witness to the tendency of human societies to deify themselves, to sacralise their ways of being in the world by making God their author and defender. Because an all-wise God would see through systems and their outcomes in a way that mortals cannot, this move represents God as acting on purpose to set up and maintain what were in fact unjust institutions. The Bible spans 1,700 years of human history, and so maps many social models on top of one another. In consequence, it portrays God as standing behind sexual mores and taboos erected to protect ancient societies very different from our own.
The second contributing factor is the appeal to tradition. Biblical religion can no more do without tradition than human children can rear themselves. The size gap between infants and adults means that it takes roughly 18 years for human offspring to get oriented to adults’ conception of the world. So also and all the more so with God. There is no way that individual human beings could get a grip on who God is in one short lifetime. The Bible records how it took centuries for God’s people to come to the most elementary points (eg to the recognition that God is against child sacrifice).
Nevertheless, respect for forebears can be shown in more than one way. Conservatives deploy strong arguments from tradition, which insist that scripture and select traditional interpretations are absolute norms. They conclude that since scripture and tradition set the divine seal of approval on ancient sexual mores and prohibitions, that these are what “orthodox” believers must observe. Because the ancient societies were unjust, the strong argument from tradition puts religion in the position of defending violations of human rights.
By contrast, liberals observe that even a good human upbringing not only guides but misleads, that adult offspring may be expected to love their parents enough to challenge them where s/he thinks they are wrong. Likewise, adult believers have a responsibility not only to put themselves to school to tradition, but to weed it: to identify systemic evils that are ripe for uprooting – pre-eminently, human rights violations – and to go after them with shovel and trowel.
• Marilyn McCord Adams is regius professor of divinity at Oxford University and canon of Christ Church, Oxford
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