THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 148
The worldwide divide
[for archived material please go to tonycrosscolumn.org.uk]
Every day the implications of the fact that we all live in a global village are becoming more apparent. How does it affect the churches in the present homosexuality/biblical authority debate?
There is no doubt that many parts of the world are inter linked in ever easier and closer links. Trade, internet, travel, cultural ideas, religion, fashions are all key areas for worldwide interchange of ideas and for interaction. Most significantly, ordinary people are able to greet and meet others from different countries in cyber space via the internet. The postmodern generation (and the rest of us!) now has constant exposure to global ideas and news. Their mental concept of the world is that beautiful image of the earth as a floating blue and white globe as seen from space - an entirely modern stimulus to the imagination for us all. Every evening our television news brings the whole world into our living rooms.
It is inconceivable that the trend to greater globalisation and greater interaction between all the peoples of the earth could be reversed.
So what has this to do with the homosexuality debate? Bear with me while I try to pull together my ideas as clearly as I can. I want to try to combine what I see as several other very important factors with the hugely important trend towards globalisation.
The first is the way that scientific study of human sexuality has led the scientific establishment to point us away from regarding homosexuality as an illness or even a disorder. It is seen by most ‘experts’ as normal behaviour (albeit, socially unacceptable until recently). This is surely not just American or British scientists - it is a world wide community that recognises that homosexuality is not the unnatural perversion it has previously been understood to be.
It is almost inconceivable that new scientific evidence can come to light to reverse the scientific stance on homosexuality taken to date.
The second factor - allied to the first factor - influencing the world wide situation that I want to bring into the discussion is the new response of Western nations such as Britain and America, as well as many European countries, to homosexuality. The attitude of the legislatures of countries across the world is beginning to favour statutes that recognise the validity of homosexuality as a fact of life - a normal fact of normal life in civilised countries. Civil Partnership Acts have been passed. These recognise the need to accept the homosexual as an ordinary member of society, with the same rights as others. Homosexuality is quickly becoming more and more widely accepted.
It is almost inconceivable that the direction of this legislation across the world could be reversed.
The third factor must be the progress of informed and expert study of the bible over the last two hundred years. Without any doubt at all such study has totally altered our view of the bible. Rightly, the bible is now seen with the same reverence, and valued, just as much as previously - but now we have learned so much more about how to understand, read and use the bible. It is still the most precious book in the world for any Christian - but it is no longer to be revered as having magical properties, as it has been regarded by some, who revered it as literal truth. Now it is recognised by serious students across the world as needing interpretation. Modern scholarship has revealed to us the real importance and value of the bible. Now we can move away from literalism and be open to what God wants to teach us from a new understanding of its priceless message. Each culture - present and future - will need to come to the bible afresh and apply the teaching of the bible to their cultural situation. The bible contains eternal truths but it has to be read with discernment. Christians would say that it has to be read with the help of the Holy Spirit.
It is inconceivable that, in the decades to come, there will not be an ever increasing number of Christians who see that to read the bible literally is to misunderstand the nature of the bible - indeed, is to misuse the bible.
That brings us to the fourth factor which is the incredibly fast growth of learning across the world - and, especially, the impending enormous increase in the availability of cheap computers (and therefore of accessibility to the internet) for hundreds of millions of young people, and others, all over the world. Cheap computers provided for countries like Africa and India will have a revolutionary worldwide effect. Access to the internet will shift this new generation straightaway into global thinking.
Nothing is going to stop the massive literacy drive across the millions of Africa and India as well as other parts of the world - a development facilitated by computers.
The fifth factor that is important is the growing risk of conflict between religions. In this nuclear age, unless religions can live peaceably together, the scope for religious conflict is endless. There has been a recent approach from Islam to Christians to discuss the relationship between their faiths and to examine where they can unite. Obviously this subject is very important. For some Christians to try to beat people over the head with a bible they regard in a literal way is the gravest of mistakes.
The potential for religious conflict will increase rather than decrease in the coming decades.
The sixth and final factor that I want to mention is the future impact of climate change. Huge problems are now looming before us all concerning climate change and water shortage. We have hardly understood the scope of these problems yet, but they have the potential for discord at the least and war at the worst.
The future of the world way well develop in unexpected directions as a result of climate change and water shortage - and perhaps far faster than anticipated.
Let me now summarise these seven factors:
Globalisation; the scientific better understanding of sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular; the consequent new consensus in society about homosexuality; the in depth study of biblical material leading to a repudiation of literalism (relevant to the two previous points); the significance of easy availability of computers and the use of the internet for world wide education; the potential conflict (or unity) between different faiths and, finally, the challenges of global warming and water shortage.
When one considers all these factors - acting individually and together - one is forced to take a much broader and longer view of the future than would otherwise be the case.
The significance of the present debate between the churches about homosexuality shrinks in importance. We Christians have to think on a broader canvas. This casts the present conflict between various Christians about homosexuality in a new light - to recognise the existence of these seven factors (as well as others) is to underline the futility and introvert nature of the present conflict in the churches. Homosexuality and its effect on the authority of the bible should not be occupying the churches as it does - and it certainly should not be causing schism. The consequences of such introversion are enormous, because the very validity of Christianity is now being questioned by those outside Christianity - including countries such as China.
It seems to me to be vital that the Christian community should stop sheltering in some bunker of unreality. It is totally unreal to think about homosexuality as it was understood two thousand years ago. To cling to outdated concepts of sexuality and morality is the quickest road to irrelevance that Christians could find. And irrelevance leads to a decrease in size and significance.
The Christian church will never die out - to suggest that would be to deny the declared purposes of God. But it can waste its resources and its reputation in internal fighting, and so fail to serve the world in the way God intends. Sooner or later the Christian community is going to come to its senses and see that gay people have been wrongly targeted (and deeply wronged) over the past centuries.
Meanwhile, I believe it is inevitable that the Christian community will divide on the homosexuality issue and on the biblical authority issue. Not just in the Church of England, nor just in the Anglican Communion - but worldwide, affecting every Christian community there is. The problem will also occur in some other religions and faith communities. In similar fashion ordinary secular communities will divide on the issue of homosexuality. Because of the comparative suddenness and completeness of the shift in the scientific attitude towards homosexuality - and therefore the lack of time for adjustment - I see the rift concerning homosexuality crossing the whole world. Public opinion will be divided - just as it has been here in Britain. In this country people came to see that they were objecting to homosexuality on a false premise - that it was strange, a perversion, evil. Then they realised that it was something that was actually normal, accepted scientifically and natural. As they came to know homosexual people they realised that they were not strange or repulsive. And so they stopped fighting over what they now saw as an unreal issue.
Perhaps the saddest mistake made in the Anglican Communion about homosexuality was that it was seen by the powers that be as an Anglican problem. No doubt it was recognised at the time that other faith communities would have to fight similar battles. But the fact is that this subject is a worldwide issue and certainly not confined to religious communities. It is a basically battle between those who want to cling to past ideas, not wantingto change, and those who recognise the need to embrace new knowledge. To a certain extent the issue about homosexuality is unreal.
What do I mean by unreal? I mean that in the light of modern knowledge it is obvious that objection to homosexuality is out of touch with reality. It is between those holding onto dogmatic and conservative views (for example - about homosexuality and the bible) and those going with the flow of knowledge and developments in the modern world. In the light of history I believe that the disagreement will be seen to be between those who are willing to accept the challenges of new human knowledge and those who want to conserve their hold on the past and its views of life.
The future of the world is indeed in trouble if there has to be a fight with the Christian communities in every generation - between those who do not want to be open to accept new truth and those who want to embrace new knowledge and understanding. There is going to be an awful lot of change - of all sorts - in the coming generations. The speed of change is increasing every year. If new ideas are to be resisted by entrenched religionists every time, it is going to get religion an even worse name than it has already! Indeed, one can see humanity eventually coming up with some new answer to satisfy the instinct to worship that appears to be built into every human being.
Since time immemorial people have worshipped gods - originally they were fierce and unforgiving gods who demanded human sacrifices. Then we progressed in our understanding of God - and eventually we came to the monotheistic religions, with their comprehensive ethical basis. Then Jesus came and we saw that God was a God of love and forgiveness, and that love has to be the ethical and emotional basis on which we live - our adopted attitude towards others.
It is impossible to predict how the world will develop in the future. But it is certain that there are vast and incredible changes afoot. Old time religionists who want to stay in the past, with the comfort of old doctrines and dogmas are not going to be able to adjust in this quickly changing world. As Christians we must be prepared to let go of some of what seemed important in the past. At that time, perhaps, it was important - but not any more. In the light of new knowledge and new concepts Christians need to hold onto the core doctrines of Christianity. Such essential beliefs need constant restatement in the language of the day. All the rest we must be prepared to put aside while we go forward into the future that beckons us. We need to drop our surplus baggage and hurry to catch up with Christ who is walking quickly ahead of us, talking with and challenging the foremost thinkers and scientists of our day.