Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright © 1996 by Kenneth Cauthen. All rights reserved.

A Plea for Revision to Satisfy an Enlightened Reason

John Stuart Mill, the eminent 19th century philosopher, once wrote:
The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the ranks of a universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny.
Homosexuality is being hotly debated today in church and society. When the case is made for the legitimacy of same-sex love, critics rush in with three main defenses. (1) It is contrary to nature. (2) It is condemned in Scripture. (3) Its acceptance would ruin society. The most interesting thing about these three arguments is that they have been used in the past to defend what is now universally regarded as evil. In American history, slavery, segregation, and the denial of the vote to women all illustrate the point. In each of these instances nature and God were said to authorize a practice vital to the good of society.

When the slavery of African Americans was condemned, it was defended as essential to social order, harmony, and the welfare of all. The authority of Aristotle was invoked to show that slavery was rooted in natural law. The Bible was quoted to show that slavery was divinely ordained and approved.

When women sought the right to vote, the best interests of society were said to be in jeopardy. It was confidently argued that political participation by women would mean "pretty girls button-holing strange men on Election Day in behalf of the `handsome candidate'" and women locked in jury rooms with males, subjected to tales of shocking behavior. To the threat of social disintegration was added the authoritative pronouncement that the involvement of women in politics was prohibited by natural and divine law. Nature and Scripture were called upon to show that woman's place was in the home and not in the voting booth. Regarding the desire of women to vote, the Council of Congregationalist Ministers of Massachusetts had this to say:

The appropriate duties and influence of woman are stated in the New Testament. . . . The power of woman is in her dependence, flowing from the consciousness of the weakness which God has given her for her protection. . . . When she assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer . . . she yields the power which God has given her . . . and her character becomes unnatural.
When the legal segregation of the races was being undermined, prophets of doom predicted that catastrophe would surely result if blacks and whites used the same public toilets or sat at lunch counters together. If little white children sat in schoolrooms beside boys and girls with African ancestry, all sorts of mischief would follow. Predictably, nature and the Bible were called upon to show that the separation of the races was both natural and divine. Look at nature. Robins and mockingbirds don't mate and produce offspring, so people of different races should follow that example and stay with their own kind. When integrationists noted that the Bible tells us that God made all nations of one blood, segregationists pointed out that the same verse goes on to say that God has set the bounds of their habitation (Acts 17:26 KJV).

As history teaches us, religion has often been the ally of natural law in defending tyranny and oppression. The use of the Bible to justify subjugation is particularly distressing. Unfortunately, Scripture is like a mirror in which interpreters, conservatives and liberals alike, can usually find support for whatever views they hold. It is more difficult to let the Bible be a searchlight that exposes our error and leads to deeper truth. Let us remember that those who used the Bible in the past to justify slavery, segregation, and the denial of the vote to women were just as confident that they were in possession of God's own truth as are those who quote Scripture today to condemn same-sex love. This recognition ought at least to create in all of us a sense of humility -- whatever our theological persuasion -- and perhaps a good laugh at the almost irrestible tendency we have to identify our own views with those of the Holy One in whose presence our only hope is grace and mercy.

Nearly all Americans now recognize that slavery, racial segregation, and the denial of the ballot to women were not good for society. They were not based on natural law. They were not ordained by God. No one who wishes to be taken seriously quotes the Bible to justify slavery, segregation, or the exclusion of women from holding public office. Now the time has come to say forthrightly that the condemnation of same-sex love is no more a social necessity nor a mandate of nature and God than were these previous evils. Future generations will readily see that the arguments now being set forth to condemn homosexuality are as groundless as the defense of slavery by Bible-quoting preachers and Aristotle-quoting philosophers. After all, the slaveholders could point to as many passages in the Bible in favor of their views as some do now to condemn same-sex love.

When the analogies of the present controversy over homosexuality with the past are called to mind, the response is predictable. This issue is different. It is sad that General Colin Powell, himself a distinguished African American of great ability, associated himself with the view that overcoming the segregation of the races in the military was different from removing the ban against gays. Logically, of course, just because arguments from nature, the Bible, and social well-being were misused in the past does not necessarily mean they are being wrongly used in reference to homosexuality. But those who use these proofs would do well to ponder whether the past might be instructive in this regard. They might at least show a little humility and caution, which in my experience are customarily absent. Let us grant further that slavery, segregation, and the oppression of women have distinctive features that make them dissimilar in some respects from each other Homosexuality is not the same as either of these past issues. But what they all have in common is the element of oppression. The slavery and segregation of African Americans, the subjugation of women, and the persecution of homosexuals are alike in that they all deny dignity, equality, and the full rights and privileges of citizenship to human beings for reasons that have no basis in fact or in sound moral reasoning. In time I believe that reasonable people will abandon the claim that faithful, monogamous sexual relationships between persons of the same sex are either destructive of society or obnoxious to nature and God.

To "the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex," that have moved from being matters of "social necessity . . . into the ranks of a univerally stigmatized injustice and tyranny" must now be added the aristocracy of sexual orientation.


Alfred North Whitehead wrote:
It is the first step in sociological wisdom, to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur: -- like unto an arrow in the hand of a child. The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code; and secondly in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason. Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.
To what Whitehead said about the processes that make for progress in society, we can add that the same thing holds for advances in the churches. Most recently the ordaining of women and the move for gay liberation have shaken the churches and "all but wrecked" them. Surely we can also say for the churches as well that they must both maintain the wisdom embodied in the received tradition -- "the symbolic code" -- and practice "fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason." With respect to homosexuality, this is exactly what is called for in the present generation. For Christians this means preserving the abiding truths of Scripture while revising tradition in the light of reason and experience. Some elaboration of this will be helpful.

EXPERIENCE: We need to begin with what actually happens to us and in us. Experience refers to what actually goes on in our lives, what we personally participate in or witness first-hand and what we feel inside.

2. REASON: When we reflect on our experience and try to make sense of it, we are using our reason. Reason is the capacity to develop concepts, ideas, and theories that interpret the world around us and what happens to us and in us. Two standards of right reasoning are useful: An idea or concept must account for the evidence we gain from experience, and it must be logically consistent with all the other beliefs we hold to be true. The interpretation of experience by our reason is fallible. We are prone to error. This means that we must remain open to new interpretations that make better sense of the world and our experience of it. At the same time we must stand firm for the convictions that are so strong in us that we cannot deny them.

3. SCRIPTURE: We have a body of beliefs and values that we gain through interpreting our experience and that we learn by belonging to a particular society. We are secular beings. But as Christians we have a set of beliefs that we learn in our homes and in our churches that have their basis in the Bible. The Bible is the witness to the revelation of God in certain important events in the history of Israel and in the life, example, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If a belief is to be Christian, it must be based on this basic authority.

The complicating fact is that the Bible has to be interpreted by somebody. It does not come with a user's manual, nor does it tell us when we have understood it properly. Unlike the old arithmetic books, we cannot look up the right answers in the back. We have to figure that out for ourselves, seeking always the guidance of God's Spirit. Consider the following passages: Deuteronomy 21:18-21, I Corinthians 14:34, and Leviticus 20:13. The first says that disobedient sons should be stoned to death; the second forbids women from speaking in church; the third commands that men who have sex with each other should be put to death. Are we to regard all three of these passages as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Surely not, but whatever our answer, it implies a theory about the kind of book the Bible is and how we should understand it as a rule of faith and practice today. The following two principles are suggested as guides for interpreting the Bible and for engaging in "fearlessness of revision."

a. Everything in the Bible is to be interpreted in light of what is most excellent in it. Whatever is not in harmony with what we judge to be most exalted in its witness is not binding on us today. Normative truth is found in the New Testament witness to God revealed in Jesus and has to do with the love of God shown toward us and the love required of us. In accord with that is the Old Testament testimony to a gracious God who created us in the divine image and to a liberating God who demands justice for the poor and oppressed. The Book of Jonah matches in worth most anything that can be found in the New Testament or anywhere else.

b. The truth we find in the Bible must be harmonized with the highest and best we know from our reason and experience based on what we cannot deny as human beings living in the 20th century.

On the basis of these two principles, for example, if we accept the modern scientific theory of the evolutionary origin of the world, then we will not find it necessary to take the first two chapters of Genesis literally. We will interpret the story of creation and of Adam and Eve in the garden as pre-scientific ways of thinking that nevertheless have much to teach us about ourselves and our relationship to God. Likewise, if we judge everything on the basis of what is highest and best in Scripture, we will not feel obligated to kill disobedient sons, insist that women keep silent in church, or put homosexual men to death. Rather, we will reconsider all these matters in the light of what is most excellent in the Bible and with what is in harmony with our own reason and experience.

4. TRADITION: As members of a particular society we have inherited ideas from our cultural and philosophical past. As Christians we stand in a particular denominational tradition. We are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, or something else. If we are Protestant, we may be Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and so on. Tradition is the approved part of the past that provides us with beliefs and guides the way we organize ourselves into churches. The same principles that apply to interpreting the Bible also apply to our cultural and religious traditions. Only that part of our inheritance is binding on us today that is in harmony with the highest and best we know from all sources, especially the Bible.

What all this means is that the morality of same-sex love is to be determined by theological reflection in which specific passages of the Bible are measured by the most lofty ethical norms we know. Even if Romans 1: 26-27 actually does condemn responsible same-sex love, that is not the end of the matter. Paul may have been wrong on some particular points, but he captured the heart of the Gospel in Romans 13: 8-10 and I Corinthians 6:12. These passages teach us that love is the fulfilling of the law, the whole of the law. According to Paul, everything is permitted if it (1) does no harm and/or (2) is helpful. It does not matter what particular passages on the subject of homosexuality say, even if Paul wrote them, if they are not in harmony with his own supreme insights. Paul teaches that we must not be enslaved by anything. I would add that, above all, we must not be enslaved by a few verses in the Bible that represent cultural traditions of the past that are invalidated by its own most elevated wisdom. At these points, we must engage in fearless revision. Even fundamentalists have their own ways of picking and choosing verses in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, for example, that they regard as binding on Christians today and ignoring others.

God's love for us, our love for God, and love of neighbor are the standards by which everything must be judged. Biblical religion at its best authorizes principles that facilitate justice and the highest possible fulfillment of persons in community. The highest ideals we know come from the Bible, and they must be used to judge everything else in the Bible. Nevertheless, it is important to show the error or questionability of certain traditional interpretations of Scripture that are oppressive. Careful historical study and responsible translation and interpretation may be effective in showing how the prejudices of the past have themselves corrupted the meaning of the original texts. Devotion to the text can sometimes prevent misuse and lead to interpretations that are not only more accurate but more humane. One must, however, be completely honest with the actual texts in doing so. Above all, particular texts of Scripture must be evaluated in the light of the supreme themes of humanity created in the image of God for a life of love in a community in which we honor the image of God in each other and mutually promote the happiness and well-being of each and all.

Never forget Paul's words: "All things are lawful for me," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be enslaved by anything" (I Cor. 6:12 RSV).


The time has come to make one of those major advances in civilization to which Alfred North Whitehead referred. Let us go forward fearlessly in a call for a revision of the "symbolic code" to "satisfy an enlightened reason." Doing so will shake but not wreck the society and its churches. And when the victory is won, so that lesbians, gays, and bisexual people are free at last to fulfill their highest potential as sexual beings and as persons made in the image of God, we will look back over our past and wonder in sad amazement why it took so long. And yet those bitter tears of regret for all the suffering and wrong of the past will not compare to the tears of joy we will share with one another in the knowledge that one more oppression "has passed into the ranks of a universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny."

I invite responses, comments, refutations, and, suggestions. 

Contact me at:
My E-Mail Address
This is one of a series of essays in theology and ethics. The best place to begin is:
Theological Essays
Presently, the following essays are available:
About the Author
A List of my Books
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God (Short Version)
A Doctrine of God (Long Version)
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch
For something on the light side:
Mother Goose Goes Electronic

Created: Tuesday, December 17, 1996, 3:03:47 PM

Last Updated: Tuesday, February 13, 2001, 9:35 AM