This past week I wrote as a pastor doing one of the prime things a pastor is called to do, namely, the work of a public theologian. The Church’s conviction is that she is called to proclaim the truth in charity, not merely to herself alone, but to the whole world. This requires both clarity and engagement. The Church’s leaders must promote and defend revealed truth, understanding that this will require entanglement in issues that are best described as contemporary.
Interpreting our World as Christians
Karl Barth once wrote “The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need – according to my old formulation – the Bible and the Newspaper.” He later clarified that the newspaper has to be interpreted from the Bible and not the other way round. We, of course, are not accustomed to thinking in this way. To us, it is the Bible which must be interpreted and the newspaper which is plain in meaning. Barth’s insight is that the Bible provides us with a lens through which we can think about and understand contemporary life. For Anglicans, this is what we mean when we speak about Scripture, tradition, and reason being a threefold authority, not that reason can trump the Scriptures, but that when we think about contemporary issues, we exercise our reason as it has been ordered by divine revelation, and under the authority of a living tradition, exemplified by the ancient councils and creeds.
What is a Human Being?
It is having said all of that I come to some issues before us today: transgender identity, bathrooms, and the question of what, exactly is a human being?
In all these things, you and I must operate in faithfulness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In answering certain questions, similar in some regards, Jesus turns our attention to the beginning by saying, “in the beginning, it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8) In the face of confusion regarding marriage, Jesus offers simple reflection upon God’s original intention concerning sexuality. He contrasts the sinful hardness of heart in his questioners with God’s glad display of his own glory in making man and woman in his own image. Far from being inconsequential, our bodies have deep theological significance for our identity and worth as human beings. As John Paul II declared: “The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.” (Theology of the Body 19:4)
The kind of subjectivism and relativism which exalts the freedom of the individual to construct his or her own identity through acts of self-will now demands that such unbridled freedom, even to deny what God has inscribed in the body, be held sacrosanct. So, the fundamental givens supplied by the body are now regarded not merely as secondary, but as suspect altogether. What must be continually ratified by the culture is one’s own self-understanding. By contrast, to define ourselves or each other by the features and purposes of the body is now held to be an act of gross prejudice, even bigotry.
To all of this, the Christian must respond, first, by insisting that human beings are creatures defined by God’s will for us, not by our own disordered desires. Scripture, tradition, and reason all point to the body as a theological marker, a text if you will. For the Christian, the body shows forth, in a unique way, the glory and purposes of God. We may experience confusion, even dismay, about our bodies. Yet they still tell us who we are, bearers of the image of God.
Thus, the Christian response to the current clamor about transgender identity and the use of bathrooms is to insist that it demeans and cheapens the human person. Asserting an identity contrary to our bodies lessens our dignity as men and women who are both made in God’s image and remade in obedience to Christ. It is our job to be witnesses to this truth, even and especially as the truth becomes the target of ridicule.
These are controversies in which we Christians cannot prevail in the short run. We must accept our minority status and attempt to build communities and churches in which sanity and charity may prevail. We must, like those ancient Christians, committed to the record of divine revelation, specifically in Jesus Christ incarnate, crucified, and risen, commit ourselves to be witnesses to the power of the Gospel to transform and redeem even the ruins of culture. To that end, let us be steadfast in prayer.
The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C. is a priest, church-planter, and catechist. He is currently planting churches in Waco and College Station, Texas with the aim of making disciples on college campuses through the planting of Anglican churches. For the last several years, he has served on the Catechesis Task Force of the Anglican Church in North America which produced To Be a Christian, an Anglican Catechism. As a part of this work, he is currently developing a catechetical consulting practice, aimed at coaching and training clergy and laypeople for the work of catechesis.