Dark Christianity
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May 2008
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Faiths can change with time


Church's gay marriage decision proves faiths change with time

Chicago Tribune

(KRT) - With faith-based conservatives on a seemingly endless roll, this hasn't been a fun season for the liberally inclined. The religious right styles itself as a divinely installed power behind the throne. Fundamentalists are so convinced that the road to heaven runs through their church's door, and they issued such finely detailed specs for a Supreme Court nominee, that even President Bush was taken aback.

Yet while the era now seems as distant as Noah and the flood, a respect for human diversity and a sense that no creed has a monopoly on truth once were in the mainstream of American religious thought. Now, though, it virtually requires what the Bible calls "signs and wonders" to believe that the spirit of toleration might someday return.

So here is a sign - and, even more so, a wonder - for the progressive and perplexed to contemplate. On July 4, the general synod of the United Church of Christ endorsed same-sex marriage.

The vote wasn't even close. Over three-quarters of delegates voted "aye" to a resolution making the 1.3 million-member group the first major Christian denomination to call for wedding policies "that do not discriminate against couples based on gender."

The milestone is even more remarkable considering the ancestry of those who achieved it. Their story demonstrates that religions aren't immutable, something graven in stone. Of course, they don't say so. Religious commitment is a way of anchoring our psyches to something more enduring than the helter-skelter confusions of everyday life. It would be hard to preach a faith that freely admitted: "This is what we believe now, but who is to say what that's going to be down the road?"

Yet religions are not immune to a basic law of history: Everything changes. Over time, some faiths become more conservative, others more liberal.

The United Church of Christ is an amalgam of an amalgam of earlier Protestant groups. On one side, it traces its roots to the Congregational Church, itself a confederation of the Puritans and Pilgrims of 17th century New England.

They were the broad-brim-hat and frock-coat folk we celebrate on Thanksgiving Day. Slicing the turkey, we recall them coming to America seeking a freedom to practice the religion they had been denied in the Old World. Which is true.

Dishing out the cranberry sauce, we remember the Mayflower Compact as a great steppingstone to democracy. Which it was.

But we let our eloquence run away with us when we try to make the Pilgrims and Puritans pioneers of modern American life with its twin hallmarks, individuality and freedom.

They didn't believe in freedom of sexual experience. They scarcely believed in sex.

Increase Mather, one of the famed Puritan preachers, thundered against "Gynecandrical Dancing, or that which is commonly called Mixt or Promiscuous Dancing, viz. of Men and Women (be they elderly or younger persons) together ... it can not be tolerated in such a place as New-England."

The Pilgrims and Puritans also had a limited tolerance for toleration. They left Europe looking for freedom of religious expression, then quickly denied it to those who came after them.

Rhode Island was founded when Roger Williams, who arrived in America a decade after the Mayflower, was scheduled to be deported back to England. He had left there because of his religious convictions, but because those didn't exactly match the Puritans' beliefs, he had to find refuge outside their Massachusetts colony.

Another group that chafed under the Puritans broke off and went to what became Connecticut. They declared themselves on the side of religious choice - but only up to a point. While Massachusetts limited voters to church members, "visible saints," as they were called, in early Connecticut the franchise was extended to those of any "honest conversation." Yet that definition specifically excluded Quakers, Jews and atheists.

And in a culture suspicious of boy-meets-girl dancing, we can only imagine the community's response if Miles Standish and John Alden, famed rivals for the hand of Priscilla according to Mayflower legend and lore, had announced instead: "Forget about her. We want to get married."

In fact, we don't have to guess. Homosexuality was punishable by death in colonial New England. In Massachusetts, they didn't even bother to dress up the ban in the jargon of the civil courts. They simply copied into the law code the injunction of the book of Leviticus:

"If any man lyeth with mankinde as he lyeth with a woman, both of them have committed abhomination, they both shall surely be put to death."

That biblical language was still on the law books in Connecticut almost half a century after the American Revolution.

Yet it is the theological descendants of the Pilgrims and Puritans who now have signed on to same-sex marriage. By the July 4 vote, the United Church of Christ has, in effect, said: "Our ancestors read the Bible one way, we another. When it comes to the blessings of marriage, we believe all men and all women are equally God's creatures, irrespective of sexual orientation."

Theirs is hardly the first religious community to change its mind. Others have done so, as the world around them changed.

Judaism is not a proselytizing faith; it doesn't encourage conversion. But that has not always been the case. Around the fifth century, Jewish missionaries converted the king of Yemen and his subjects at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula to Judaism. In the eight and ninth centuries, the Khazars of southern Russia similarly became Jewish.

Contemporary Islam has been suspicious of modern science, as many Muslim intellectuals are the first to point out. Yet from the eighth through the 12th centuries, the caliphs of Baghdad, the center of the Islamic world, presided over a great cultural renaissance built on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and science. By comparison, learning in the West had reached such a low level that the greatest Christian ruler of the day, Charlemagne, could, after a lifetime of trying, barely write his own name.

Travelers of the era coming from Western Europe were struck by the level of Islamic learning. Benjamin of Tudela, a 12th century Jewish traveler from Spain, reported of Baghdad: "Wise men live there, philosophers who know all manner of wisdom."

Contemporary Catholicism rests on a foundation of unquestioned papal supremacy. The Holy Father in Rome appoints bishops and defines the church's dogma. Yet for several centuries at the end of the Middle Ages, there was a rival theory of church governance. Adherents of the Conciliar Movement held that the papacy should become a kind of constitutional monarchy. By their thinking, the pope should govern the church with the advice and counsel of assemblies of churchmen. Among the theory's supporters were some of the leading intellectuals of the day, including Italian Renaissance scholar Aeneas Sylvius - at least before he was elected Pope Pius II.

The lesson of history is that faith changes. With the United Church of Christ's vote, it is the lesson of the present too. Both sides in the contemporary culture war should pay heed to a biblical reminder that nothing is forever. Fundamentalism and its political allies might currently be triumphal. Their man is in the White House. Religious progressives and political liberals may sense themselves on the run. Democrats seem to have forgotten how to win national elections.

But that, too, could once again change. As Ecclesiastes puts it:

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."

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