The recent three-part series of Outlook articles by Erwin Barron has generated a number of letters to the editor and lit up the Presbyterian blogosphere unlike any we have published in a long time. Both his articles and many of those letters have showcased a depth of theological reflection that can make any Presbyterian proud.
These articles, a distillation of a 300-page Ph.D. dissertation, provide an insightful glimpse into two Presbyterian congregations who hold opposing positions on same-sex relationships. Barron’s analysis of the progressive More Light congregation and the conservative Confessing church dismantles many caricatures often foisted upon each group. While reporting the genuine differences he observed, he also lifts up commonalities the churches share.
Most responses to these articles raise questions about 1) the importance of personal experience and Biblical exegesis in forming Christian moral decisions; and, 2) whether or not, considering the subject matter of his articles, the Outlook should have let readers know of the writer’s own gay orientation and lifestyle.
The articles focus our attention on the role of context/experience and Biblical study in forming our theological and ideological convictions — and in what order they are pursued. The fresh water trout and the sea bass both may think “Water is water,” but little do they know that their perception is shaped by their own experienced environment. We humans are able to cross from our environment into others and thereby be invited to critique our own assumptions, even our prejudices. However, as Barron would suggest, we do that too seldom. We don’t listen well to others’ perspective, and in the process we leave ourselves to be subjected to our own subjectivism. He urges us to take our experience seriously, even to unashamedly begin with such perspective before tackling Scripture in such study, and he urges us to learn from each others’ perspectives, too.
Barron has been criticized for elevating experience above Scripture. In a rejoinder letter to the editor he responds that “Scripture is still important. It must be a part of all Christian moral discussion.” He adds, “I do not propose that we stop listening to God’s word, I only argue that the only way to hear God’s word is through the lens of our experience. We cannot avoid that, and we cannot discount it. Experience is a BEGINNING point for discussing Scripture and other sources of authority.”
At this point, I would want to tweak his comments by adding that, after acknowledging our own experiences, and learning from the experiences of conversation partners, and learning from the experience-shaped insights of others around the world and through history, and now looking afresh at Biblical texts with the help of such cross-cultural, cross-contextual, cross-experiential insights, our goal should be to hear holy Scripture without it being clouded by our subjectivism, so that Scripture can be decisive, the final word. If we instinctively and unavoidably begin our theology from below – our own experience – we do need to conclude it from above – God’s word. We do not so much assess Scripture from our perspective; Scripture assesses our perspective, and corrects it.
For this reason, we categorized these articles as “op-ed”, i.e., reflecting the convictions of the writer, not necessarily the opinions of the editor or The Presbyterian Outlook Foundation.
On the question of disclosure, the Outlook has not made a practice of presenting the resume of its writers’ personal and family lives, any more than we do so for those who submit letters to the editor. Mr. Barron knew that, so he felt no need to disclose his to us when proposing these articles for publication. However, when not stated in an article, we do try to disclose if we believe a writer has a stake in the point being made — whether due to affiliation with an advocacy organization or due to a history of supporting legislation that challenges existing church policy. In all candor, Mr. Barron apparently does wish to see our denomination’s policy prohibiting same-sex marriages to change – and some of the arguments in his research seem to lean toward such a conclusion.
At the same time, I agree with Barron’s note to us that his research and writing represent work “… done fairly, supervised by very strict standards and very meticulous academic scholars.”
In the light of all this, I encourage you to re-read these articles, to assess your points of agreement and disagreement with the respective congregations — recognizing the writer’s genuine efforts to report about them fairly — to ponder the process we engage when discussing our Christian values, and in the process, to learn from the research Mr. Barron has offered us.