Ambiguity & Christianity

Most of my reading this year has been non-fiction and often about Christianity and Catholicism. Much of what I’m reading has been sought by me but I’ve also been lent and recommended quite a number of books. One I’m reading at the moment is by a Dominican Friar named Timothy Radcliffe called, ‘What is the Point of Being a Christian?’. I’ve not finished it yet but in reading I came across this:

“If someone is divorced and they meet someone they love, then should they marry again or not? If someone is gay, then must there lives always be lived alone?

The context is important here and he goes on to mention abortion as something which has unambiguous teaching and this is all in the context of listening to the other side and the “problems” faced in the West, especially by Catholics. The answer to the first question in the context of Catholic teaching seems just as unambiguous as abortion: no, they shouldn’t. The second question shouldn’t be answered because it is implying it is a choice between sodomy and solitude.

A few chapters later the same subjects come up again:

“The Church has an unambiguous teaching about sexuality. We are to have sexual intercourse only with those to whom we are married, of the other sex, and open to the procreation of children. It is a clear ideal, but it is remote from the way many Catholics live. Vast numbers of Catholics are divorced and remarried, or live with partners, sometimes of the same sex, and practise contraception. There is an abyss between what the church teaches and the way many members of the Church live. When it comes to sex, most Catholics do not behave in a way that is strikingly different from other members of society.

How is the church to respond to this? One approach is strongly to insist on the received teaching. If we do this then we are in danger of becoming increasingly out of touch with the lives of so many member of our Church. The Church might become a narrow sect whose sexual ethic isolates it and inhibits it from sharing the gospel with others.”

Now teaching on sexuality becomes unambiguous. My response to his observations about church teaching and how large numbers of especially Western Catholics behave is, so what? How is the church to respond? With the church teachings, whether or not this results in it becoming a narrow sect.

A few sentences down he does show a grasp of what will result in surrendering to the world:

“If the Church simply accepts modern sexual mores, then the dangers are just as serious. We would appear to be assimilating ourselves weakly to the modern world, lacking the guts to stand for what we believe.”

But his conclusion on what is to be done:

“I do not know the solution”

Now I’m not a Catholic but as of writing, am still in the process of becoming one. I’m actually currently still a member of the Anglican Church of Australia and was baptised, confirmed and married in that church. I was also long a lapsed member and was at the time of my marriage though I felt the cultural pull to still be married in a church. My Christian life and certainly much of my moral life would no doubt compare unfavourably with the author. My knowledge of Christianity and experience with the world certainly pales in comparison as well. But it seems to me that the churches response to these issues should be to assert and reassert the teachings. If people want to choose another way, they are free to do so but the church is under no obligation to accommodate sinful behaviour because of the feelings of the flock.

Is this really so hard?

I’m reminded of a response by the Church of England after an attempt to change the divorce laws which I recently read in Peter Hitchen’s ‘The Abolition of Britain’:

“Whoever succeeded in raising the moral tone of any society without causing the frustration of some natural desires, and the hardship of having to forego them?”

And it is worth going straight to the unambiguous source in Matthew 19:9:

“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

This seems to leave little wiggle room but I know from extensive experience that man is a master of rationalising his desires.

It isn’t my intention here to talk specifically about the sins, or even provide reasons why they are considered so. I want instead to talk about the way many in the church respond when they are challenged on this and other moral teachings

The ambiguity is not in the teachings but in the response and Timothy Radcliffe provides the perfect example. He is very careful to be clear about the church teaching while separating his own feelings from it. Some might call it compassionate or considerate but I consider it cowardly. Refusing or avoiding being explicit about church teaching has the twin problem of legitimising sinful behaviour and demoralising the already faithful. If the church is truly what it claims to be then its teachings have consequences beyond this world and failing to hold them to be serious risks losing many souls to hell.

There is a general attitude in society that seems to be affecting the church that being “nice” is avoiding confrontation. That holding yourself and others to moral standards is “judging” them and somehow makes you terrible. The only exceptions seem to be with regard to smoking and anything that can be construed as bigotry to certain (definitely not all) identity groups. This is usually called “relativism” and it has no place in reality or in the Christianity which I believe to be reality.

I understand the desire to use rhetorical honey to get people to listen but it must always be poured from a jar of reason. The church teachings are what they are, however hard they may be to follow. And if the Church of England is taken as an example of what happens when you compromise with the world; it means irrelevance. I know I have sinned many times but the difference is that I don’t attempt to rationalise or justify these sins.

We all have weaknesses and sins that are stronger than others. Sexual sin is a particularly powerful one which is why it gets so much focus from both the faithful and faithless.I suspect that despite the fluff about “reason” that a good majority of atheists are so for psycho-sexual reasons.

I don’t use this as an excuse but a major reason I believe I grew apart from the Anglican Church was because so many leaders in it lacked a spine to be firm on what Anglicans are supposed to believe. As I say, the people who are already faithful become demoralised when their leaders refuse to affirm and reaffirm the call to live the lives they are struggling to live. And what does this nice, non-judgmental response to modern sins get you? Has there been a church that has grown in size because of this? I can’t think of one.

To end where I began, another problem with ambiguity is that cynical people like me will wonder where your beliefs really lie. In the case of Timothy Radcliffe, I was not surprised to search his name and find he said something like this:

“How does all of this bear on the question of gay sexuality? We cannot begin with the question of whether it is permitted or forbidden! We must ask what it means, and how far it is Eucharistic. Certainly it can be generous, vulnerable, tender, mutual and non-violent. So in many ways, I would think that it can be expressive of Christ’s self-gift. We can also see how it can be expressive of mutual fidelity, a covenantal relationship in which two people bind themselves to each other for ever.”

And it gets worse.

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