Beyond the Human Point of View
Presentation at the Covenant Network of Presbyterians Luncheon
211th General Assembly
Fort Worth, TX
June 21, 1999
The Rev. Peter J. Gomes
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and
Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Excerpts from this address appear in Covenant Connections Vol. 2, #3.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” II Corinthians 5:16
My colleagues in Cambridge are quite bewildered as to why I’m here. When I told them that I was coming to Texas for lunch, they thought that even by my standards that was a slightly hyperbolic sort of statement. But it is in fact the case. I have come for lunch — not to be lunch, not to do lunch, but to share lunch with you on this remarkable, stimulating, and courageous occasion, and I am happy to do so. I was flattered to receive the invitation, and very much aware of what it portended: some of you know that I am not unfamiliar in certain Presbyterian circles.
Many years ago, I preached in the great high kirk of St. Giles’ in Edinburgh — as close to a Vatican as Presbyterians would permit themselves to acknowledge — and the minister of the high kirk, my dear friend Gilleasbuig Macmillan, warned me before the service. He said, “Just for your own good I want to assure you that the people will give you a careful listening, but they’re not like your usual American congregation; they’re not very exuberant, and hardly anybody will say anything to you at the close of the service. We do stand at the door, however, and I don’t want you to take this amiss.” So I preached as God gave me utterance, we then went to the door, and it was exactly as he had said. Dozens and dozens and dozens of Edinburgh Presbyterians passed by with a slight nod of the head and maybe a little incline but without further word or gesture, until one woman came along and took my hand in her two, which is a very dangerous sign at the door of a church. I do not permit it at The Memorial Church. She took my hand in both of hers, she looked me straight in the eye, and she said, “Och, it must have been a great honor for you to preach to us this morning.” So it was; and before anyone has to say that to me today, I will say that it is a great honor for me to be among you.
Now, I must tell you that your invitation is courageous, and it may have been courageous for me to accept it. Needless to say, the Southern Baptists didn’t ask me to speak at their convention, although I belong to the larger Baptist fellowship. Your invitation to me is very brave, and the situation reminds me of one of your brethren whom I hold in high esteem, Tom Gillespie, president of Princeton.
About nine years ago Tom invited me to give the Commencement address at Princeton Seminary and I happily accepted; and between the acceptance of the gracious invitation and the time that I was to appear at Princeton, I created a spot of bother, I guess one would say, and gained my fifteen minutes of notoriety on a subject that has seemingly obsessed the Presbyterians for many years. So, not wanting to embarrass Tom, and not wanting myself to be embarrassed, I called him and told him that I thought that, considering everything, I should withdraw from the obligation and we would call it a draw. I was aided in that decision by a letter from several Christian students from Princeton who, in the name of the gospel, asked me not to come because my presence would be divisive.
Who was I to divide the Presbyterians? So I prepared not to go. Well, Tom Gillespie, praise God, would not hear of it. He said, “You were invited and you must come, and I promise you a warm-hearted and faultless reception here at Princeton,” even though our views — he didn’t say this, but I understood it — on the subject of sexuality are not only different but pretty widely publicized. So I girded up my loins and made my way to Princeton Junction, and found my way to the Chapel. As you know, Princeton Chapel is an enormous parking garage of a place, and thousands and thousands of people were there, and there was that slight undercurrent that you know so well — nothing explicitly stated but you could feel that there was a little something going on. It was just as Tom had said, however, with everything very nice and pleasant. Then came the moment when I was to preach, and up I went into the enormous pulpit — it takes half an hour to get into that pulpit — and there was a hushed moment of expectation. I said to them, “I want to commend you at Princeton for your courage, I want to commend you for your hospitality; you have done a brave and good thing in inviting me, an out and open and affirming and practicing Baptist, to speak to you on this occasion.” Some people were shocked, many were reassured, others a bit relieved, and some a bit bewildered.
There are no surprises here among you, I suspect, as to why it seemed useful and perhaps even helpful for me to appear, and I’m delighted to do so. There are virtues in having a stranger among you. For one, I will be gone by two o’clock this afternoon and we may not ever meet again, at least in this life, and when and if we do it is bound to be under different circumstances. I realize, as Charles I said, and knew from his own experience, that “There is nothing more dangerous than a Presbyterian fresh off his knees.” I’m very much aware of the power of convictions and the power of contrary convictions. And so I come among you as somebody who is with you but not necessarily of you, and that is an important perspective to maintain here today.
The first thing I want to affirm — and that is the word I will use in this setting — is the importance of what you are doing as the Covenant Network. This is far more important than simply an internal matter of housekeeping or denominational polity or politics within the Presbyterian church. I hope you are aware that the witness that you make in this Covenant gathering, and in the covenant of communities of which you are a part, is witness not just to the Presbyterian Church: some of you might feel that if it were just to the Presbyterian Church it would not be worth your time, and I feel that way too. Your witness is not just to the Presbyterian Church; it is to the whole church of God, and to the whole of civilization, because it is not only religious people who will see what you are doing and what you stand for, but that vast army of the secular, the bewildered, the confused, and the people on the outside of any household of faith. They are the ones who will be curious about people of Christian convictions that extend beyond the conventional view of their own polity and communion, and will look to your witness and from it take courage and high example.
The importance, therefore, of what you are doing cannot be overestimated, not only within your fellowship but well beyond it. It is important not just for sexual minorities, not just for gay and lesbian people within the church and beyond the church, but important for the sake, first, of the vitality of scripture.
I am going to say a little bit more about the particular reasons for your importance, but the first reason that your witness is important is that it attests to the vitality of scripture. The second reason is that it affirms the current activity and power of the Holy Spirit. And the third reason is that it is a testimonial to the future vitality of the church.
Now let me talk about each of these briefly. Why is your work important for the vitality of scripture, and a way of appropriating scripture which is consistent with the whole history of the church in general, and in particular with our reformed Protestant inheritance of treating scripture and its relationship between the printed text and the vital word? A conundrum that I face frequently in my courses on the interpretation of scripture, and in my general commerce across the country, is being addressed by people in any one of my privileged minority statuses, including that of a gay man, a black man, an unmarried man, a Harvard man, a Baptist man — any one of them, choose your label — as people ask, “How can you keep loyal to a book which is used to do in every one of your distinctions? How can you maintain fidelity, when it would make so much more sense just to chuck the whole thing, or do what Thomas Jefferson did and rewrite it, editing out all the things you’d rather not have in it?” Why are we so committed to that which on a superficial basis would appear to be the instrument of our own destruction or our own inhibition?
I was in a debate once with a very distinguished member of the Nation of Islam, one of the black Muslims, who argued that Christianity is so unnatural for black people, that the religion of the slave master and the oppressor is one that does more harm than good, and that that is why the only natural religion for a black person in the modern world is the Nation of Islam. How does one respond to that, at so many other levels, at so many particular divisive levels?
It strikes me, as I think about how to answer that question each time it’s put to me, that I’ve never thought of myself as apart from the community of scriptural experience, scriptural interpretation, and scriptural authority. It has never been mine to look at from the outside, for I was born into the faith of my fathers and my mothers, and I was nourished by it and continue to be nourished in it. I am not there on probation; I am not an on-looker. It is my church, my faith, my book; it belongs to me as I belong to it, and the notion just beggars credulity that I should chuck the whole experience or reconfigure my experience to conform to it because there are parts of it which do not describe the world as I now know it or as I have experienced it. It simply does not make sense, nor has it ever made sense for the people of God.
This makes me realize what our evangelical friends refer to as the “perspicacity of scripture,” and realize what a dynamic and vital book it is, that in every age and in every place and in every clime it has the capacity, without changing one jot or tittle, to include within its gracious orbit people who heretofore or in other circumstances would have no way of being included.
It is a book that invites, that opens, that compels, that consoles, that comforts, that redefines our relationship to ourselves, to each other, and to God. And the book that is capable of doing that is the book to which I am prepared to devote all the powers and skills and graces that God has given me. The Bible in its dynamic way is an inclusive book, and our ancestors understood that. Our earliest Christian ancestors understood that the Jewish book was a book that was capable of accommodating a different revelation; and as they moved through their human experience they discovered the capacity of this book to draw them in. It certainly was true of our ancestors at the time of the Reformation, and it has been the experience of Christian people throughout the world ever since. This is not a book that belongs to somebody else, or to some prior period, or to some particular school of interpretation or exegesis. And every attempt to put a fence around this book, to keep it from change, and to keep people from it, has gone down to defeat.
The history of the interpretation of scripture is a history of the capacity of God’s word to speak in many tongues and in many ways, and to draw all people into its gracious embrace. It strikes me that that is perhaps the most compelling and exciting case for what we would call the ‘authority’ of scripture. It does not mean bowing down to some inert text or to some absolute school of exegesis, but in this case means recognizing in the history of the people in the book and in the encounters of the peoples of the world with this book, the experience of people who have been called to new life and who have recognized in that experience and in that relationship the vitality of their own image created in the image of God. It is from that book that that operating principle comes. Therefore I affirm the authority of scripture, in the sense of its exemplary model, its authority for us in describing the relationship that God intends for us to have, and for all of us to share. And I recognize that the authority of scripture is based on one fundamental principle of modesty which acknowledges the fact that God knows more about human vocation and salvation than we do.
That is a very important principle for my fellow exegetes, my fellow historians of interpretation, my fellow biblical scholars and expositors: it is very important to remember that God knows more about vocation and salvation than we do. This principle requires that the church take the unaccustomed position of a certain generosity and a certain modesty in imputing its values upon the values of scripture and God. That is the first thing that we must remember. We are committed to the vitality of scripture, we take the book seriously, we take the history of the book seriously, we take the interpretations of the book seriously. But we understand that the book is but a means and not an end. We do not worship this book. If you do worship it, you are in the wrong church and in the wrong tradition. There are other places in which to worship books, such as in the Morgan Library in New York City; or you might visit any fine collector of rare bindings. You can worship books there, but you can’t worship books in the house of God.
The second thing that I want to affirm by the good example and the powerful witness of this Covenant Network is the affirmation of the Holy Spirit, the power of the Holy Spirit which makes us believe, and makes us know that God speaks, not simply that God spoke. God speaks in the present tense, and the great question that we always have to be alert to is what the Spirit is saying to the churches today. It is interesting to know what the Spirit was saying to the churches in Antioch, in Calcedon, and even what the Spirit was saying to the churches in Geneva; but it is equally important to ask what the Spirit is saying to the churches today. In the Presbyterian Church (USA), in the last year of the twentieth century, for example, what is the Spirit saying? What does the Spirit require? In order to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches, we have to listen, and that is a rather unfamiliar posture to so many of us in the Protestant and Reformed versions of Christ’s catholic church. We are not good listeners. We tend to stop speaking, which is not the same thing as listening, for usually we stop speaking in order to prepare our next set of remarks rather than to listen to what is being said.
What your Covenant Network represents is a force both for listening and for hearing throughout the whole church. And that sometimes may be a difficult task for you. You may sometimes feel inhibited or strapped in by the notion that one of your tasks is not so much to convert or to triumph immediately, but simply to be heard, simply to be listened to. That is a long and tiresome vocation; but it is the vocation that has been thrust upon you, and it is the vocation that you have chosen. We know through the history of our experience as believers in this country, and in the world, that if we really do hear what the Spirit is compelling us to do, we will be forced to change our ways. We may hear things that we’d rather not hear. I suspect that’s one reason why public worship in the great generality of Protestantism is such a noisy enterprise. On Sunday mornings at ten o’clock or eleven o’clock in most Presbyterian churches, I would be willing to bet, there is not three minutes of unstructured sound in the services. If somebody is not speaking, somebody is singing; and if somebody is not singing, somebody’s about to sing or the organ is playing or somebody is strumming on a guitar: we desperately block out the silences for fear that we might hear something that might make a difference.
You are in the business of both listening and hearing what the Spirit has to say; and then by your example, by your witness, by your perseverance, you are persuading others to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Now, we realize that we’re fighting tremendous odds in any effort to bring the church from where it has been to where we think it ought to be, for the church exists in this wonderful conundrum. It is an agent for change created out of the most powerful elements for change that one can imagine. The Creation is certainly an element for change, the Incarnation is certainly an element for change, the Resurrection is certainly an element for change, the coming again of our Lord is certainly an element for change — we are built for change. And yet the church by itself is probably the most conservative institution short of private banks. We are terrified of change. We have been dragged kicking and screaming into every positive and constructive movement that the world has faced, and our track record of change is not very good. Show me where we have stood on the frontlines and I’ll applaud it, but there won’t be many such instances. Your Co-Moderator has already indicated that if one were to be judged this moment on the church’s position on women, or the church’s position on race, few would be able to stand. “If Thou shouldst judge iniquity, O Lord, who could stand?” I believe that the question of the full inclusion of homosexual persons in the ministries of the church will have the same kind of indicting quality when the question is asked, “Where were we, where was the church, when the movement came, the moment to affirm the gifts which God has laid upon those people whom he has called into his ministry?”
My friend Will Willimon, a Methodist, and dean of the Duke Chapel, reminds me that it is clearly within his memory that forty years ago, as he was entering theological school and the ministry, the vast majority of Methodist preachers were still, in tall-steeple and no-steeple churches, holding onto the inherited racial orthodoxies of a 1958 South Carolina. Now, he says, many of those people are still in the ministry, and the great terrifying question always concerns where they were thirty years ago on this issue, or even twenty years ago. It is possible that God does move in mysterious ways, but sometimes God takes a very long time to do it; and you and I and the church have to give an account of our stewardship on these matters.
It would be nice to think that on the issue of sexuality, the church finally might get it right; but my researchers tell me that you Presbyterians have been debating this subject since 1978 at more or less every one of your conferences. On the one hand one should congratulate you for your consistency and your steadfastness, and on the other hand one could think that you’re obsessed with sex, and that what you like about sex is never coming to any conclusion. My great hope is that for the sake of the rest of the church you will finally come to some conclusion, and our prayer is that it will be the right conclusion. Resistance to change is natural and persistent. And you Presbyterians are devoted to order, as is well known around the world, not because you are orderly but because you are chaotic; and that is why you do everything decently and in order — like the person who washes three times a day: either he is very dirty, or he is very clean.
There is something of that with you, and those of us on the outside just can’t wait for some of you to hang up the wash. The work of the Spirit may at times seem chaotic, risky, and very dangerous. Although Presbyterians are Trinitarians, they tend to place two-thirds of their emphasis on two-thirds of the Trinity, that is, on the first two members. The third member is a little loosey-goosey, a little hard to define and very hard to orchestrate or corral. The important thing to remember about the Spirit’s work at Pentecost, for example, is not the ecstasy which is usually invoked on Pentecost Sunday, the confusion and the excitement and the high energy level. That’s an interesting point, but if that were preached in my sermon course I would say that it’s a ‘B’ point, not an ‘A’ point. The ‘A’ point is the Spirit-induced understanding. That was the thing that the Spirit did, and that was how the people could say that they each heard in their own language the wonderful works of God. The work of the Spirit is designed to foster understanding and ultimate reconciliation. You are about that work.
The final thing I want to say to you is that you members of this Covenant Network are in my opinion the future of the church, and that I think most people recognize that. I think that is why you encounter as much resistance as you do. Most people recognize that this is the way of the Spirit. You can play King Canute if you want to and vote not to allow the tide to come in; you can do it and you may even prevail in that vote. You can play Dame Partington and command the waters to recede by a majority vote in a clean procedural action; but the water will not recede.
You are the future of the church because you represent the kind of hospitality, openness, and lively reading of the word of God that in the long run is going to be the evangelistic seed for the church of the next millennium; and it is to that that you should be lending your energies. You are witnesses to the sure conviction that we must transcend the world of which we are a part. You must not be driven by the agenda of the secular world, you must not be driven by fashion or custom or convenience. You are driven by conviction, and most Christians realize that there are times when conviction crosses in a very jagged way the cultural consensus. You Presbyterians cannot be the church of the cultural consensus, for we do not need another denomination to bless the status quo, or another group of people who pander to the fearful anxieties of our culture. We do not need that: America has enough churches of that order and you ought not to be among them.
That leads me to my concluding remarks, which bring me back to where I started. This talk had a title that somehow got mangled in transmission. The title you have been given is “The Human Point of View,” and I read one of your notes saying that you weren’t quite sure what that was all about. Well, the reason you weren’t quite sure what it was all about is that it wasn’t accurate. The title is “Beyond the Human Point of View,” which makes a very big difference, especially if you’re taking as your text II Corinthians 5:16, which says, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” Remember, this is that dead white male Paul speaking to his community about the fact not only that did he not know Jesus after the flesh, but that the knowledge of Jesus after the flesh is now irrelevant.
“We regard no one” — including Jesus — “from a human point of view,” says St. Paul, for we have been brought into “a new creation,” a new relationship. New standards obtain. “Beyond the Human Point of View” is where Christ has always wanted his church to be. And it seems to me that that is the point of view you are trying to affirm and represent in the Covenant Network.
When I looked at the last Baptist of whom I knew to speak to a group of Presbyterians, I realized that it had cost him something. My old friend Harry Emerson Fosdick was very wise to preach to you but not to join you, for your predecessors would have done him in. You can’t do me in, because I’m not joining. But in his great sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” the tone towards its close becomes actually electric. Remember when he says that the times are too important for these petty little divisions within the church to obsess the church, to curtail the mission of the church in a needy and dying and dreadful world? We should not be obsessed with these “lesser matters of the law,” as Dr. Fosdick says, quoting scripture.
I hope the day passes when your denomination is defined by its sexual politics. I yearn for the day when you will all be free of textual harassment, which is not a bad way, I think, of describing the enterprise. It is a good Presbyterian professor, Diogenes Allen, who said, “The only way forward is forward,” for there is no other place to go. You cannot go backward and you cannot stay here. They know that, and that is why they are so concerned about how you carry on your business. The only way forward is forward.
Well, three things for you to remember. The cause is just, you are on the Lord’s side. The cause is just, the record is clear, the experience of the gospel is in your direction, you are sailing with the wind of the Holy Spirit. If you feel a little grim about that from time to time, remember, “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake…for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that the struggle is real. This is not a metaphorical enterprise, this is a real battle. Fear and ignorance must never be underestimated, and there is always more money for fear and ignorance than for their opposite. Just look around and you will find that that is true.
So, the struggle is very real, which means that patience is the most important witness — which is the third thing. Patience is the most important witness. How does the old hymn go?
Not to the strong goes the battle,
Nor to the swift goes the race;
But to the true and the faithful,
Victory is promised through grace.”
Does that mean that I’m optimistic? No. I am not optimistic; and no Presbyterian I know is ever optimistic. We live in a fallen world ruled by totally depraved people who do not understand the sovereignty of God.
I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful. What is the difference? Optimism cannot stand the bright heat of the noonday reality: mere optimism wilts and has no inner resources with which to combat the seeming hosts of evil all around it. Optimism fades very quickly; but the hopeful are the ones who, in spite of the circumstances, in spite of apparent reality, in spite of the moment, understand that hope endures all things and ultimately carries all before it in God’s time. When we had Nelson Mandela at Harvard last fall, somebody asked him whether in prison he had been optimistic that this day would ever come. He said, “I never was optimistic, but I never lost hope.”
You must remember that God knows where you are. God knows what you are doing. God honors the witness and the ministry that you are making. And while God may not deliver victory into your hands on your timetable or when you think you deserve it or want it, you are on the Lord’s side. You must never, ever give up. Never give up, never go away, never cease to work for the goal of a whole church, a whole ministry which reflects the image of God in all of its splendor, all of its diversity, and all of its glory.
That is the work that you have chosen for yourselves. But perhaps more insistently, that is the work that has been chosen for you.
“From now on, therefore,” my brothers and sisters, “we regard no one from a human point of view.” We have moved beyond that. And by God’s grace we will reach that moment, that place and time, when all of this will be seen as a mere prelude to the great ministry and work to which all of God’s people have been called.
I wish you well in the struggle. Do not give up.