August 03, 2006

Krista's Journal: The Value in Drawing Out Differing Perspectives

August 3, 2006

I think that what most Americans want, whether they are religious or not, is for the religious voice in the mix of our public life to be more constructive. They'd like it to better mirror the positive substance of religion that gives meaning to lives, that nourishes communities. Religious traditions are intellectually and spiritually rich repositories for pondering what it means to be human. These qualities of religion should reframe our public conversations, and make them more generous and creative.

But if that's going to happen, journalists and religious people need to be more searching and articulate about what is really at stake in the moral ideas we turn into political issues. The issue of gay marriage, for example, is about far more than gay marriage. It has become a prism for deep questions, anxiety, and confusion about sexuality, relationship, and love in our time. It also arouses fierce human impulses both to question difference and to defend it. The vast, raw emotion on both sides exceeds the weight of all of our arguments.

We decided to center this program around two Evangelical views because so much of our culture's ongoing debate about the morality of gay marriage is framed by Evangelical Christian voices. And while there is an assumed conservative Christian position on this issue, this vast swath of Americans, like every group of Americans, is far from monolithic.

Richard Mouw and Virginia Mollenkott are two devout, learned individuals who love the same Bible but have come to different sexual theologies in their lives and in their thought. Each of them articulates religious discernment with a passion, but also with thoughtfulness and with humanity that rarely marks our public debate. There is value for me, in this program, simply in drawing out these perspectives on a divisive issue from two people of integrity. It provides a chance to listen to both sides with some depth, a virtue in itself and surely an exercise that is salutary in any community and democracy.

Very clearly, Richard Mouw and Virginia Mollenkott do not agree on what our public policy on gay unions should be. But given the chance to speak fully, they are able not only to describe their answers but also to reveal the questions they are asking of themselves, and the questions they would like to ask of others.

Richard Mouw, who is opposed to same-sex marriage, would like to see the conversation open up in a human way, in which people on both sides could talk together about the deepest hopes and fears this subject arouses in them rather than ideologically trading rhetoric. Acknowledging his own humanity and his sense of the complexity of Christian teaching, Mouw proposes a virtue more exacting than moral judgment or simple compassion. He calls this virtue "sexual humility." Virginia Mollenkott adds her own longing and challenge that — on both sides of the gulf of opinion on gay marriage — we attempt to speak "from the holy in ourselves to the holy in the other."

Such language stirs my imagination about what a religious approach might add to our collective soul-searching on gay marriage and other political divides. Just as strikingly, it insists that the task of being Christian in this debate may be about more than the policies one advocates. The way we approach our divisions, Mouw and Mollenkott suggest, is as telling a reflection of the substance of our faith as the positions we take.

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is the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, an author, and a columnist for Beliefnet.

is an author and professor emeritus at William Paterson University.