February 23, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, February 23, 2017, I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Theo Hobson says Church of England should remain agnostic on homosexuality. Is that even possible?
We’ve been watching the Church of England struggle, if that’s the right word for it, with the question of the LGBT revolution, and we have seen just recently a couple of interesting developments in the Church of England. The first was a report from a special study committee that brought the recommendation that the Church adopt what we might call a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. That’s a very compromised position as we should understand, but it would put the Church in the position of not changing its historic definition of marriage, just looking the other way when its own ministers violate the teaching of the Church. And even though the Church would not endorse the ordination of openly gay clergy, openly gay clergy would continue to serve in this “don’t ask, don’t tell” scenario.
And then we saw another interesting development, and that was that in terms of the Church’s General Synod when the report was received, the House of the Clergy representing the ordained ministry in the Church of England basically rejected it because it isn’t moving far enough fast enough. When the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was first announced, I made the suggestion that it wouldn’t last for long. And as we now know, it didn’t even last as long as the proposal was made. But now you have a very interesting article that appears in The Spectator, that’s a generally conservative newsmagazine in the United Kingdom. It’s by Theo Hobson. The title of this article,Show Full Transcript
“The Church of England should be agnostic towards homosexuality.”
Let’s just remind ourselves about what the word agnostic means. An agnostic is one who believes that the question is either unanswerable or the answer is unknowable. In terms of the existence of God, an agnostic is not exactly an atheist. The agnostic is not sure that God does not exist, but he believes that the question is unanswerable or that even if there is an answer it cannot be known or known with any adequate assurance. Now you might think, and if so you would think rightly, that agnosticism is not a possible position on a major issue for a Christian church, but as the headline in The Spectator made clear, Theo Hobson is calling for the Church of England to adopt an agnostic policy towards homosexuality. He writes,
“Let me state the obvious for a moment: the Church of England does not know what line to take on homosexuality. The traditional line, that it is contrary to God’s will, is opposed by most Anglicans. The clergy in General Synod showed their opposition last week by refusing to approve a report by the bishops that upheld the old line. But the minority that likes the traditional teaching is not for budging.”
Now in British parlance, that means that even though the minority is a minority, it is still a powerful minority, and furthermore it’s almost assuredly true that it is the minority that would be actually paying the bills for the Church of England at present. The Church of England was, as you’ll recall, born in a certain spirit of compromise, and the Church has held a certain comprehensiveness as a claim that is that it can include liberals and conservatives, people on an entire spectrum of positions on most doctrinal issues. But then Hobson asked the question,
“Does the leadership have the stomach to pursue a reform that will create a schism? No. Is a compromise possible? In theory, the Church could drop the ban on gay clergy and the ban on the blessing of gay unions, but retain its opposition to gay marriage. This makes theoretical sense to me, but in practice gay marriage has become symbolic of full equality and reformers wouldn’t settle for less.”
Now the only difference I have with Theo Hobson on that particular point is the fact that even theoretically he thinks such a compromise might be possible. But then he goes on to suggest yet another compromise. In his words,
“Maybe the Church can move to a position of official agnosticism. We do not know God’s will on sexuality, nor on marriage, it should say. Therefore various opinions, and practices, are allowed – but none is granted official status. The Church needs to develop a culture of reticence and evasion. This could be called assertive evasion – for it asserts that agnosticism is the right position.”
Now I think it’s probably the case that similar arguments have been made, but in a far more nuanced sense, in other denominations or other churches in reference even perhaps to other questions. But you understand the temptation here, the temptation comes down to what he calls an “assertive evasion”. He is calling for the Church to take an agnostic and evasive position, and here’s the bottom line, on an issue to which Scripture, undoubtedly, speaks very clearly, and an issue that is definitional for Christianity. It’s definitional for this reason: if we do not know what sin is and if we do not know or cannot know God’s purpose in creation for marriage, gender, and sexuality and reproduction, then we basically cannot know much of anything, including the storyline of the Bible and including the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve known plenty of church leaders who have attempted to be evasive and I’ve known many who basically would shrug their shoulders in a spirit of effective agnosticism. But I must admit, never before have I seen a major figure of this kind of stature make this kind of argument right out loud. He’s calling for the Church of England to be agnostic on the question of homosexuality.
Now one more note on this before we move on, and that’s that the position of agnosticism actually would not be acceptable to either party in this dispute. Those who are identified in this article as the reformers, that’s the pro-LGBT movement, they do indeed, as Hobson says, see this as an absolute issue. It’s fundamentally in their view an issue of human dignity and human rights. On the other hand, those who hold to a scriptural understanding of homosexuality understand that it is a fundamental question of truth and, furthermore, that human dignity can only be adequately undergirded by an affirmation of biblical truth. And that means an affirmation of the very structures of creation as the Creator intended them.
Hobson ends his article by saying that when the Church is asked its position on homosexuality, he suggests the answer should be,
“We do not know now.”
Now that’s both true and false. If the question is what does the Scripture teach about homosexuality and what should the church affirm about that in terms of honesty, there really is no way to say we don’t know. But if you ask the question exactly as he asked it, what is the position of the Church of England on homosexuality? Well it might be something close to an honest answer to say we don’t know, but therein lies the tragedy.
Next one other aspect of this article that I find very interesting is its author, Theo Hobson. Theo Hobson is a major British theologian and public intellectual, and I have cited him in my book,
We Cannot Be Silent, because I think he offers an absolutely brilliant definition of what is necessary for a moral revolution or in his words, “a total moral reversal.”
What he’s talking about is how an entire culture, a society, a civilization can turn its moral order upside down, and he makes very clear that that is exactly what has happened on the LGBT revolution in Western societies. The entire moral code has been turned upside down. As Theo Hobson describes it, for a full moral reversal to take place three conditions must be met. The first is this: what was condemned must be celebrated. The second is that what was celebrated must now be condemned. And thirdly, those who will not join in the celebration will be condemned. Let’s just look at those three steps. First, what was condemned must be celebrated. That’s exactly what has taken place in terms of homosexual relationships and behaviors in the modern age. They were condemned. Now they are not just neutral in moral terms, they are celebrated. And the moral reversal requires that second stage, which is that what was celebrated must now be condemned. What was celebrated was a biblical understanding of human sexuality and gender. That must now be not just made neutral or neutralized, it must absolutely be condemned. That’s why there’s such animosity towards biblical Christianity in this setting. And then thirdly, those meaning human beings who will not join in the celebration of this reversal will be condemned, and that also is what we’re seeing.
There’s that cultural and moral animosity, especially coming from so many powerful sectors in the society. I find Theo Hobson’s thought, even as he comes from the other side of the equation, very, very helpful because I think he’s absolutely right, right in the sense that what we’ve experienced is a full moral reversal and also absolutely right that that moral reversal required all three of those conditions. And by now in terms of at least the cultural elites or Hollywood, the cultural production complex in America, higher education, and other sectors, that moral reversal is now virtually complete. All three of those conditions long since met.
From 'The Homosexuals' to 'When We Rise': Documenting the LGBT revolution in two shows, 50 years apart
And just as if on cue, next I turn to an article that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times. In this case it’s in the Arts and Leisure section. The headline,
“Stories Behind the Pain and the Pride.”
Adam Nagourney is writing about a brand-new film special entitled “When We Rise” that will depict the history of the gay civil rights movement. NaGourney writes,
“Fifty years ago next month, CBS broadcast ‘The Homosexuals,’ an unsettling documentary about a subject ‘that people find disturbing,’ as Mike Wallace, the anchor, put it.”
And Nagourney tells us,
“For nearly an hour, viewers saw a gay man in shadows describing the tragedy of his life, psychiatrists who depicted homosexuality as a debilitating mental illness and a harrowing clip of a distraught 19-year-old soldier being driven to jail after his arrest on a charge of soliciting sex in a public restroom.”
Now why is this important, and why is it timely, as I said, almost as if on cue? It is because the New York Times in this article absolutely documents not this shift in the society at large, no, it depicts the shift in terms of those who were in control of the culture. We’re talking here about a television event that took place 50 years ago next month. Let’s just be clear about that. That means March 1967. We’re not talking about ancient history. We’re talking about just 50 years ago next month. And the point is this: 50 years ago, just next month, CBS produced a documentary on homosexuality, which was landmark because it had been unspeakable in terms of public conversation before, and also of importance to us because every single reference to homosexuality in this special 50 years ago now at CBS was negative. Nowadays that would be absolutely unthinkable. The moral reversal is very clear in the scripts of these two television productions, one 50 years ago, one coming in just a matter of days.
Many listeners to The Briefing will remember the anchor Mike Wallace, the father of current anchor Chris Wallace. Mike Wallace is a fixture not only in the CBS News, but also in its keystone program, 60 Minutes. This was a program that CBS chose Mike Wallace to anchor 50 years ago. And 50 years ago, Mike Wallace said this,
“The average homosexual — if there be such — is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage.”
Furthermore, it was a matter of fact then that many spokespersons for the gay community were very clear about the fact that Mike Wallace was stating what they would also have affirmed, that there is a greater openness to promiscuity, there is much less of an interest in monogamy, and there is a far shorter duration of relationships in terms of the homosexual world. But, of course, all that began to change with the arguments for the legalization of same-sex marriage, which, as we’ve also seen, was the ultimate way of normalizing and bringing legitimization to the entire spectrum of LGBT relationships identities and behaviors.
But moving 50 years ago to the present, Nagourney writes,
“A more contemporary examination of gay life in America comes to network television later this month, in an eight-hour avalanche of prime time spread across four nights, and with a decidedly different take on the subject.”
Now just note that reference to a decidedly different take on the issue. That’s absolutely an understatement. And it’s also fair to say that these days you could not even imagine the language used by Mike Wallace, 50 years ago, appearing virtually anywhere, not only in network television, but almost anywhere else in terms of society and the mainstream media. Nagourney understands this when he writes,
“But the world is a different place than it was when ABC first commissioned the project four years ago. Barack Obama was in the White House, and gay leaders were celebrating a series of court and statehouse victories, which would soon include the Supreme Court’s recognizing a constitutional right to marry by same-sex couples.”
Interestingly, Nagourney also writes,
“Still, telling that story was hardly easy. The history of the gay and lesbian movement is diffuse and complicated, with endless debates over where and when it really began, who its leaders are and, most fundamentally, what the battle was — is — about. Its center of gravity bounced across the country. There are few, if any, people who have risen to define the movement: Figures tend to appear and recede to the sidelines, because of death or the challenges of leading a fractious group of what was, at least initially, outcasts.”
Again, all the signals present here about the reality of this great moral reversal, a moral reversal that’s now baked in the cake, as they say, just taken for granted. The world has changed, and now you have what’s described here as an avalanche of primetime television to document and celebrate that moral change. I refer to these stories together precisely because of Theo Hobson. It was he who I think better than anyone else described what would have to take place for this moral reversal to happen, and it’s interesting that now in recent days it is he who has called for the Church of England to take this agnostic position on the question of homosexuality. To that we simply have to note, that agnosticism really isn’t sustainable or possible. It’s not intellectually honest on either side of this moral reversal.
The rise of marriage-lite: British court denies heterosexual couple civil union
Next staying in England, again and again we come to the recognition that when you look at a headline there’s just often so much beneath the surface that begs for attention. For example, yesterday The Guardian, a major London newspaper, ran a story with the headline,
“Court rules against heterosexual couple who wanted civil partnership.”
Well, what’s going on here? Well it was indeed, just as the headline says, a British court that ruled that heterosexual couples did not have access to civil unions. So what’s at stake in this? Well civil unions are something like marriage-lite. They aren’t exactly marriage, they aren’t defined as marriage, they don’t come with all of the rights and privileges or responsibilities of marriage, they’re something like marriage-lite.
Back before the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom, sex couples were offered not marriage but civil unions. One of the most interesting aspects about civil unions is that it’s a lot easier to get out of them than it is to get out them, than it is to get out of marriage—all kinds of legal and of course cultural and moral assumptions behind that.
So what’s really interesting here is not that the court ruled that a heterosexual couple doesn’t have access to civil unions. No, what’s interesting is that they want that access. As a matter of fact, we’ve seen similar stories, especially coming from nations like the Netherlands, and from France, now in United Kingdom, where there are opposite sex couples, that is heterosexual couples, who would have access to marriage just as now same-sex couples do, but they want civil unions. They want something less than marriage. It’s the heterosexual couples in this case who are demanding their own access to marriage-lite. What does that tell us? Well it tells us that in terms of the LGBT revolution, we understand there was a revolution that came before, several developments, including the subversion of heterosexual marriage, that is of marriage in terms of its definition in Scripture, and throughout Western civilizations and furthermore in cultures far beyond.
One of the interesting aspects of marriage, of course, is that—and Christians understand this in terms of general revelation and the structures of creation—every single civilization has found itself throughout history to the equivalent of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. But nonetheless what was required before the new LGBT revolution was a subversion and redefinition of marriage in the first place, a destabilizing of marriage as the union of a man and a woman for a lifetime. The really interesting thing about this headline is not the court decision. And by the way, that’s not likely to stand for very long. That’s because the British government is under pressure to do exactly what this couple demanded, and that is to legalize access to civil unions to marriage-lite for opposite sex couples as well as same-sex couples.
That’s an interesting issue. It’s not what’s most interesting. What’s most interesting is that here you have heterosexual couples who say we want in on what’s available to same-sex couples. And it’s not marriage. It’s marriage-lite. They want in on civil unions because they don’t want to make anything that even on the front end sounds like they’re making a commitment for the rest of their lives, till death do us part.
One of those driving the effort to include by law heterosexual couples with access to marriage-lite or to the civil unions said that the main opposition was coming from what he described as “the marriage industry and the church.”
Now we can certainly understand the opposition to legalizing these civil partnerships or marriage-lite coming from what we might describe as the wedding industrial complex. That makes sense just in financial terms. But the other opposition is coming from the Church, and that means the Church of England, but wait just a minute. This is a church that doesn’t apparently know it’s mind on the issue of sexuality and gender. When it doesn’t know its mind on the issue of marriage, how in the world can there be a focal opposition, at least for very long, coming from the Church of England to a proposal to subvert marriage? It appears to many that the Church is doing quite a good job of that itself.
Culture and theology: What's missing in the NY Times story on reincarnation and baby rituals in Bali
Finally, sometimes an article appears in the major media, and it’s clear that the writer and the editor know that there’s something big to the story, but they’re not exactly sure what that thing is. This is the case in a headline story that appeared also Sunday in the New York Times. The headline,
“In Bali, Babies Are Believed Too Holy to Touch the Earth”
Bryant Rousseau writes,
“Babies on the Indonesian island of Bali don’t start off life on the right foot — or on the left. That is because a prevalent and ancient custom there says an infant’s feet should not touch the ground for the first 105 days after birth.”
He then explains,
“The practice derives from a belief that newborns are still close to the sacred realm from which they came and therefore deserve to be treated with veneration.”
Belief in reincarnation is behind this, and that’s rooted in Hinduism.
“A child’s birth is seen as the rebirth of a deceased relative, with ancestors returning as their own descendants.”
Rousseau writes about a ceremony that takes place after 105 days. He writes,
“At the start of the ceremony, the parents are purified. A ritual then bids farewell to the 108 spirits and thanks them for having protected the baby. Holy water is sprinkled, and food offerings are made to appease demons and entice benevolent spirits to strengthen the child for the next stage of life.”
A professor speaking to the article said,
“Usually a trance shaman, called a balian, officiates and communicates with the ancestors to find out who has been reincarnated…. The hair carried by the baby since birth, considered unclean, is cut off. Finally, the infant touches the ground for the first time and is officially given a name. In some ceremonies, a number of names are written on leaves that are placed amid burning sticks; the first leaf to burn is the name bestowed on the baby.”
I point directly to this story precisely because it appears in the New York Times, without any apparent awareness on the part of the Times of why this is particularly interesting or important. This is the kind of article that you could just as well have read in National Geographic Magazine 100 years ago. Why did it appear this past Sunday in the pages of the New York Times? Clearly the reporter and the editors must’ve assumed there’s really something interesting here. But what’s so interesting in a world in which everything is to be made a matter of cultural and moral relativism? This is just one more way of having a baby and bringing a baby into the world. No, I think even behind that is the understanding that there’s an entirely different worldview that is operational here. Part of it is described as Hinduism, and of course one of the aspects of that is a belief in reincarnation. It really does make a difference.
But I’m really not certain that the secular perspective of the New York Times has any allowance for the fact that theology really matters. But of course it does, and it always matters. It’s theology behind explaining why babies in Bali don’t touch their feet to the ground until at least after 105 days. The subject matter of this article is really interesting, but what’s equally, if not even more interesting, is the fact that the article appeared just this week in the New York Times. But the affirmation of the importance of worldview, fundamental presuppositions, and theology, well, it comes very clearly in this article, which just one sentence,
“Infants are seen as visitors from a higher plane, who need to be respected — and kept off the floor.”
The reason for that, abundantly clear, is not just culture. It’s beyond culture. It’s theology.