Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality

By Tobias Stanislas Haller. Church Publishing. Pp. 192. $18. ISBN-13: 978-1-59627-110-4

Reviewed by Ephraim Radner

Tobias Haller has gained a reputation over the past few years of a temperate and thoughtful apologist for progressive Episcopalians, especially on matters relating to sexuality. Through his blogging and engagement in various church discussions, Haller has provided a consistent witness of gentle but persistent argument in usually winning prose. Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality is, in fact, drawn from several articles he originally posted on his blog. It is now laid out in expanded form in 12 brief chapters, dotted with sidebars and “callout” paragraphs, often with a summary, and followed by discussion questions (of only vague relevance to the actual topic).

Taken on its own terms, the book is useful for understanding the arguments some gay-inclusion advocates deploy to address traditional prohibitions of same-sex relations within the Church. Haller writes in his generally lucid way, spices his discussions with some wit (and just a bit too much sarcasm at times), and covers a good bit of ground, from biblical hermeneutics, key scriptural texts, the character of the Law, Hooker on the use of “reason,” “natural” vs. “unnatural,” common claims regarding the place of procreation and sexual difference in marriage, and so on.

It’s a bit of a mishmash in terms of sequence, but the arguments themselves are clear enough (if sometimes over-intricate on linguistic matters). They are not particularly novel to those familiar with the debate: Haller points out inconsistencies of practice in the tradition, fastens on the logical conundra over the use of categories like “nature,” limits the meaning of biblical texts to realities that purportedly have nothing to do with modern homosexual partnerships and understandings (e.g. to cultic prostitution and idolatry), points out how Christian understandings and practice with respect to the law have changed in various ways (eating blood, slavery, etc.), and argues for a central gospel message that should control all Christian scriptural interpretation (the Golden Rule).

The book is a disappointment, however, on the level of a studied consideration of the topic in terms of Scripture and tradition. There are a number of reasons for this, some simply related to the genre of blogging from which these essays derive, others related to the form of argument Haller uses, and others related to the presuppositions applied to the arguments themselves. I will address each of these in turn.

In the first place, the book is thin on the logical side of things (it is thin in terms of size too). Haller has no interest in presenting a scholarly grappling with the issues he discusses: the bibliography is limited and spotty, there are no footnotes, and hence no means to track whose arguments are actually being addressed and where to find them (this is not uniform, to be sure; but just why one argument is located with a specific scholar and most are not is unclear), and there is no attempt to engage alternate and conflicting viewpoints in any thorough way.

This is standard blog essay writing, and in itself is not objectionable. And Haller makes his intentions clear in his introduction. But admitting to something in advance doesn’t necessarily resolve the problem in play. For the stakes are high in this discussion, as we all know, and the claims that Haller pursues are ones that are often quite intricate and detailed (often numbingly so), involving linguistic arguments in the Greek and Hebrew, Talmudic commentary, classical philosophy, and more.

Most readers who are not specialists will skim these long passages, perhaps assuming that the arguments must make sense because they are detailed and intricate. But they are not actually responsible arguments on these terms. And, unfortunately, the careful reader will have little help in placing Haller’s claims within any sort of scholarly context, will be offered no aid in pursuing alternative viewpoints or in making use of provided tools to evaluate his claims, and will simply read a series of assertions about technical matters without historical or literary touchstones. The less careful reader, furthermore, may believe that the argument has scholarly foundation, when in fact it does not.

There are many examples one might point to, from the loose citation of Rabbinic writings whose useful application to biblical texts and their meaning demands sophisticated (and highly contested) hermeneutical and historical methods, to discussions of Hellenistic texts in a scholarly vacuum. Let me take a couple of simple instances. Haller refers to Robert Gagnon’s relatively exhaustive The Bible and Homosexual Practice only now and again. In one place, on the issue of whether Jesus actually says anything about homosexuality, he attacks Gagnon on his reading of porneiai in Mark 7:21ff. as possibly implying homosexual practice.

Haller provides some straightforward initial questions, ones that are worth noting, and then pursues his general theme of same-sex references in the Bible as being primarily aimed at cultic prostitution. One might think that Gagnon is a rather silly man on this basis. But the reader is never told that Gagnon himself doesn’t put much weight on the very argument Haller attacks (half a paragraph, on a verse he questions as “authentically” Jesus’ in any case), while Haller, on the other hand, deals with the question at length (four pages).

More relevantly, Haller references no other detailed discussions of the meaning of porneia, like Bruce Malina’s 1972 article, that would actually provide significant counter-evidence to Haller’s thesis. And such counter-evidence in fact exists in spades, and not only on this topic, though one would not know it from Haller’s curt dismissals. In contrast, when Haller treats the story of David and Jonathan as a prima facie depiction of a homosexual relationship, he does not mention Gagnon’s own lengthy treatment of the text, which provides significant arguments that might directly refute Haller’s position.

I mention Gagnon here because he is among the more prominent objects of negative reflection by Haller, even though he makes only a few appearances; many scholars of note on the topic, from Richard Hays on, are absent altogether. In short, this is not a book designed to argue, let alone be capable of arguing a position seriously; it is instead a series of scattershot opinions, some of them sophisticated and often interestingly presented, but in generally quite unsubstantiated ways. Caveat lector.

But one must not criticize an author for not fulfilling a scheme he never set out to pursue in the first place. So it is important to grasp what Haller’s purpose is, and to evaluate the work on these terms at least. On this score, I think it fair to say that the book is generally aimed at providing apologetic responses to common traditional Christian objections to homosexual behavior and partnerships (including “marriage”). The final chapter is in fact a summary review of the book in just these terms, laid out as a list of “objections” and “responses.”

In this sense, the volume acts as a kind of handbook for pro-gay advocates in the church, ready to have an answer for every discrete argument traditionalists might make in the course of a conversation or debate, as, say, on your typical blog or parish forum. S ex (and marriage) is “for” procreation? Haller provides arguments why this is not so. I sn’t sexuality founded on male-female difference? Here’s something you can respond with. What about Sodom? What about Leviticus? etc.

In light of such a purpose, the book does its job well. Haller, as I said, writes engagingly and fluidly. He provides smatterings of facts and references — a Patristic writer here, a rabbi there, an anthropological observation somewhere else — that give some vital profile to a point, and then moves on. Because the arguments are not actually founded on comparative research, however, they will never convince those who are not already persuaded.

Based mainly on a string of vague possibilities (the Bible doesn’t say that David and Jonathan were not homosexual lovers, does it?), the final argument taken as a whole is a tissue of “maybe” rather than carefully constructed logic. The value of Haller’s individual points, however individually uncertain, lies in their status as ammunition in the ongoing sex debates of the church. Let me be clear: I believe most of Haller’s arguments can in fact be refuted (and have been); but that would require the kind of point-by-point scholarly tenacity, like a dog with a bone, that only someone like Gagnon has thus far exhibited (much to people’s discomfort). This approach to the topic, as we all know, is exhausting.

But that is, in part, due to the genre of this kind of apologetic. For what the book does not provide, precisely because of its debate-manual format, is an overarching vision of Christian marriage and sexuality itself. The book is premised on undercutting objections, not constructing a synthetic perspective. Having excluded procreation as an end, or the engagements of physical difference, Haller sees marriage as a matter of “love and fidelity” between two persons, period (pp. 55-56). This is not, in itself, a problematic claim as far as it goes (though it does not, in fact, go very far). But Haller reaches this point mainly through subtraction — subtracting this and that text from the Bible as historically or linguistically or morally irrelevant, this and that thematic inter-textual network as confused, this and that interwoven set of strands in the tradition as misled, figurally and practically — all to the end of dismissing the list of traditional “objections.”

The result is a “remainder theology” where the Scriptures have little to say comprehensively, and where the traditions of the Church exist as interesting but generally superfluous distractions from the main point of love and fidelity. No doubt, if Haller were to set about writing a more positive sexual theology, he would have something positive to say about husbands and wives, about children, about the agony of barrenness, about the character of suffering difference — even though he believes that none of this is essential to marriage itself (and the book, as a whole, is about “same-sexuality,” not about “mixed-sex” marriage). But there is nothing in this volume to point to such positive interests or even theological trajectories. Marriage ends up as a rather vague container, not terribly interesting frankly, for homosexuals or heterosexuals.

Even though the purpose of Haller’s volume, then, is limited, it nonetheless makes use of more fundamental theological presuppositions that are worth noting. Most centrally is his understanding of Scripture. By and large, and despite the scattered nature of his treatments on the nature of scriptural interpretation throughout the book, Haller’s approach is squarely in line with the paradigm of liberal Protestantism: the Bible records the historically evolving interplay of God and human response, and this record has authority for the present only to the degree that a consistent moral “principle” (discerned somehow as divine) can be extracted from it.

For Haller, this principle is Jesus’ Summary of the Law, which subsists as authoritative through varying cultural changes embodied in the scriptural text. Thus, in his penultimate chapter, he explicitly argues that Paul’s words in the New Testament do not have the same authority as Jesus’, and indeed, have no authority unless shown to be “congruent” with explicit words of Jesus (p. 125), interpreted according to the Golden Rule (p. 138; c. p. 94). And given the ideal Gospel of love that transcends the historical contingencies of the biblical record, Haller can therefore approach that record selectively according to the kinds of historicist arguments he marshals in his apologetic handbook: this and that text is “really” about cult prostitution and idolatry, not homosexual sex; this or that text is “really” about male-female anal intercourse, not lesbianism; this or that text is “really” about the primitive biological views of an ignorant ancient society, not about a divinely wrought anthropology.

Although he claims that he wants to take the text “as the Church has received it,” he does not mean this in terms of the coherent meaning and authority of the text; only that he is not interested in “source” criticism. Haller is sensitive to “contradictions” in the Scripture and uses this fact as a fundamental justification for seeking a central interpretive cue that can relativize texts according to its application, through the analytical use of “reason” that can thereby cull and trim, determine cultural “desuetude,” judge relevance to the moment and need. The Laws of Scripture are useful insofar as they “save”; once they cease saving, according to some cultural calculus reason performs, they lose their usefulness, and have only a historical value.

I admit to finding the liberal Protestant paradigm of biblical interpretation inadequate, for many reasons but especially for its ultimate loss of Scriptural joy and life: what historical reason has left behind must inevitably wither. Reading Haller on Leviticus, for instance, a book for which I have had a special concern, is like reading a chemistry problem. Ironically, given his frequent (if anachronistic and decontextualized) citation of rabbinic material, Jewish tradition has always seen Leviticus as a cohesive and living word, bound to the fullness of both Torah and the prophets and writings.

It is just here that, to my mind, Haller misses so much in trying to minimize the book’s broad theological reach that itself acts as an authoritative interpreter of Genesis 1-3, and not merely as an outlying problematic. And it is just this cohesion of scriptural word that goes utterly missing in Haller’s approach. In Berkeley’s phrase, Haller reads Scripture like a “minute philosopher,” picking it apart to throw away the useless bits and to get at its “essence,” but in the process losing the form and the shape that has in fact ordered the Christian tradition most especially in its development of a relatively stable understanding of marriage.

Ultimately, the kinds of “objections” to same-sex marriage that Haller is trying to refute emerge from such a larger scriptural vision, and not from their status as discrete arguments. The central element of procreation in marriage, for instance, is bound up with the character of Israel’s calling in fallen (and the Fall has no place in Haller’s scheme) human history — genealogy — and ought not simply to be examined in terms of this or that individual person or couple (a rather modern obsession). But this cannot be grasped outside of a coherently engaged Scriptural text. I t certainly makes no sense through the lenses of a truncated and dissected Scriptural witness, translated into abstracted principles of individual relations. The same is true of the traditional understanding of sexual differentiation and so on.

One sorry side effect that has come from the migration of theological argument to the debates of the blogosphere — swift and rhetorically pointed, but also inevitably constricted in time and length — is just the loss of context for the extended kinds of scriptural reflection that Pope John Paul II in fact offered in the addresses collected in his Theology of the Body. The arguments over same-sexuality and marriage deserve such continued reflection. Haller’s book will have its uses, but not in that context.

The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto.