What happened to nuance, a friend of mine, dismayed by the quality of public discourse in our polarised society, recently asked on Facebook? When did nuance die?
The apostle Paul wrote a letter to the house churches in Rome, concerning the nature of the standing, before God, of two formerly-divided camps, the Jews and the Gentiles. He introduces his theme (Romans chapter 1) by way of a consideration of same-sex intercourse.
Paul argues that same-sex desire transgresses the purity code, and that same-sex intercourse is ‘contrary to nature.’ And here, traditionalists part company with the LGBTQIA+ agenda; progressives part company with Paul; and both miss the point that he is only just getting going in making.
(Of course, same-sex intercourse is contrary to nature in as much as it must override an almost universal desire to pro-create. But the point Paul is establishing is a theological one.)
That the Gentiles are included in the church at all has already been established, through the vision God gave to Peter of God’s bursting the purity laws, specifically in relation to clean and unclean foods. But now, Paul goes further. Taking a well-established image of Jewish socio-political identity, the vine, Paul says that God has broken Israel off from its own vine and has grafted-in the Gentiles ‘contrary to nature’...and then, will graft the Jews back in, again, ‘contrary to nature.’
In several places, Paul writes about human sexual relationships with incredible nuance, as do other New Testament writers.
On the one hand, (heterosexual) marriage is an illustration of the relationship between Christ and the church—and widowhood, of the relationship of the Christian to the Jewish law.
On the other hand, Paul critiques such relationships according to the gospel, making clear (among other things) that they ought not to be conducted in a way that dishonours either party, or any third party.
One the one hand, same-sex intercourse is (by virtue of its being contrary to nature) an illustration of God’s desire and action in establishing Jews and Gentiles within one community on the same basis.
On the other hand, same-sex exploitation is condemned. To give a concrete example, there is no place in the kingdom of heaven for the common Roman practice of masters exercising control by raping adolescent male slaves, and those who did so formerly must do so no longer.
Moreover, we are not at liberty to weaponise the marriage illustration against those who are single and celibate.
And, also, we ought not to consider same-sex desire, in all its brokenness, as being outwith God’s bigger picture.
Nuance. The ability to see something that points to God in anything, while not naively embracing everything about it. To build a robust case through making careful, qualified statements.
The greatest polarisation in British society today is over Brexit. That two camps might be brought together as one seems as unlikely as the bringing-together of Jews and Gentiles as equal standing in the early church. It will take not only the grace of God, but careful, nuanced, theological reflection, to break down the dividing walls and any desire to establish first- and second-class citizens in the new world order.
Unless we can see, in the desire to Leave the EU, something that reveals the nature and activity of God to us, we have lost sight of the gospel.
Unless we can critique the values and actions of Leavers, according to those of the kingdom of heaven, we have lost sight of the gospel.
Unless we can see, in the desire to Remain in the EU, something that reveals the nature and activity of God to us, we have lost sight of the gospel.
Unless we can critique the values and actions of Remainers, according to those of the kingdom of heaven, we have lost sight of the gospel.
And if nuance really is dead, here’s to the raising of the dead!
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