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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

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Would God Approve?

Amid all the questions about legality and morality that are currently swirling around the topic of same-sex marriage, a very important question isn’t being asked. If we dig a little deeper around the question, it reveals some very interesting – and very familiar – trends.

First, the unasked question, which has two components. I think we need to be asking ourselves why, even if the Bible is interpreted as saying same-sex unions are dangerous and evil and all the rest of it, we would listen. While the Bible is many hundreds of years old and a fine piece of history and literature, I do not believe that it should be interpreted rigidly and literally. As a society that is at least ostensibly founded on the principles of rationality and reason, we should adapt these traditional teachings to modern circumstances. To do otherwise is a form of madness. Should we continue to teach our children that the world is a flat, bounded disk composed of four elements and created in 4004 B.C.? We don’t – or those of us who aren’t card-carrying Canadian Alliance members don’t – because circumstances have dictated that those teachings are no longer empirically accurate. While I would never argue that the Bible is irrelevant, after some 2,000 years I think that we need to treat its teachings as a set of moral and ethical goals rather than as a set of non-negotiable rules.

I should admit up front that I am not conventionally religious. But I also think it’s important to point out that I have read Christian doctrine and history and am familiar with its many interpretations. Upon close inspection, the Gospels of John, Mark, Matthew and Luke are far from clear on the matter of same-sex unions. John, the most frequently quoted biblical disciple, spends most of his energies arguing against the understanding, found in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, that God is in all of us and that to find salvation we must look inward instead of outward. In contrast, according to Thomas 73, Jesus preached that "When you bring forth that in yourselves, that which you have will save you. If you do not have that in yourselves, that which you do not have in you will kill you."

The point here is not to assert my knowledge of the subject or to postulate that the Bible supports same-sex unions. The point is to underscore the ambiguous nature of Jesus’s teachings and the highly political ways in which his teachings and the diverse interpretations of them became orthodoxy, mostly through the Council of Nicene in the fourth century AD. Elaine Pagels’s book, The Gnostic Gospels, provides a far more articulate and through overview of the politicization that has always marked Christianity than I can offer.

This brings us back to the second component of the original question, and it is one that I believe demands more attention than it has received: why, bearing in mind that Jesus’s teachings were and still remain a matter of subjective interpretation, does a significant portion of the population retreat to the argument that "the bible does not support it" when faced with the question of same-sex union?

As an agnostic, I would tend to answer that question by pointing to the fact that every institutionalized religion tends to systematically distort the meanings of its holy texts, be they Jewish, Christian, or Islamic. One need only look at the problems people of the Islamic faith face right now for evidence of this. While the Holy Qur’an preaches pacificism, individual accountability, and spiritual optimism, there are many groups that subvert this.

The term Jihad provides an excellent example. While it can have the violent connotation that groups such as Hamas attribute to it, a more honest interpretation reveals that term Jihad has a deeper meaning, referring to "the struggle with our own selves." Literally, it means, ‘exertion’ or ‘to struggle’: spiritual warfare, battling with one’s own demons in order to give ourselves over to God, in order to place ourselves in ‘the arms of the wind’.

By this point in human evolution it should be clear that religion isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a forum for the propagandization of simplified consumable truths. Instead, it is a subject that is rife with interpretations, subjectivity, and bias, each of which lends support to different political or social agendas. Those who see it as a one-dimensional, indivisible source of truth can be put in the same intellectual boat as members of the flat-earth society.

Thus, to construct an argument rejecting same-sex unions on doctrinal terms is problematic, at best. Not only is it dangerous and intellectually irresponsible to interpret a 2,000-year-old document literally, because the content of this document is deeply contestable. To do so is a demonstration of willing ignorance and a flagrant misinterpretation of the teachings of Jesus. It also obscures the fact that many people find same-sex unions frightening because they threaten their understanding of how the world is supposed to work. That’s fine, and in a free and democratic society everyone should be allowed to express his or her opinions, subject to certain limitations. But I believe that the prohibition of wilful ignorance should be one of those limitations.

Ottawa, June 13 – 863 words.

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Max Fawcett

Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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