Some Thoughts on Priesthood in Our Post-modern Times

Essay by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox on 24 August 2017 6 Comments

This week my brother and sister-in-law are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. I was reminded that I was ordained a priest the year they were married and that indeed I performed their wedding (my very first). So maybe it is time to offer a few reflections on the meaning of priesthood in our time.

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Buddhists tend to think of God as a manifestation of creation; Christians think of God as separate from creation. Do you understand that distinction?


Dear Suzanne,

I’d like to answer this question in a roundabout way by sharing and comparing two passages from the literary masters Yukio Mishima and Victor Hugo, each of which confronts the question of God and Ultimate Reality in his own way by asking the question of how free a person is to choose how he lives. Mishima represents one possible Buddhist perspective; Hugo, one possible Christian perspective. Each of the passages below occurs near the beginning of what are widely considered to be each writer’s master works.

Hence, they can be understood as setting the terms of the lengthy stories that follow.

In his Sea of Fertility series, Yukio Mishima introduces the law student Shigekuni Honda, who is deeply interested in questions of ultimate reality. Honda pursues his close friend through multiple reincarnations across his own single lifetime. Here Honda is trying to be harshly realistic with himself and his friend about the concept of free will—the ability to make choices for oneself:

Picture a scene like this: it’s a square at midday. The will is standing there all alone. He pretends that he is remaining upright by virtue of his own strength, and hence he goes on deceiving himself. The sun beats down. No trees, no grass. Nothing whatever in the huge square to keep him company but his own shadow. At that moment, a thundering voice comes down from the cloudless sky above: “Chance is dead. There is no such thing as chance. Hear me, Will: you have lost your advocate forever.” And with that, the Will feels his substance begin to crumble and dissolve. His flesh rots and falls away. In an instant his skeleton is laid bare, a thin liquid spurts from it, and the bones themselves lose their solidity and begin to disintegrate. The Will stands with his feet planted firmly on the ground, but this final effort is futile. For at that very moment, the bright, glaring sky is rent apart with a terrible roar, and the God of Inevitability stares down through the chasm.

But I cannot help trying to conjure up an odious face for this dreadful God, and this weakness is doubtless due to my own bent toward voluntarism. For if Chance ceases to exist, then Will becomes meaningless—no more significant than a speck of rust on the huge chain of cause and effect that we only glimpse from time to time. Then there’s only one way to participate in history, and that’s to have no will at all—to function solely as a shining, beautiful atom, eternal and unchanging. No one should look for any other meaning in human existence.

In this passage Honda envisions “God” is the inevitable forces of all reality, churning one impermanent feature into another, obliterating free will wherever it tries to assert itself as separate. It’s really important to understand that this is not a bad conclusion in Honda’s eyes even though he fights it emotionally. Actually, it perfectly foreshadows how his friend’s beautiful life will unfold again and again in each reincarnation across the series.

By comparison all the great drama and angst of Victor Hugo’s much beloved character Jean Valjean in Les Misérables depends very much on a vision of reality and God that accommodates free will. The passage below occurs after, first, the Bishop of Digne rescues him from a return to prison by giving him back the items he stole in exchange for a promise “to make an honest man of himself,” and second, after Jean Valjean steals money from a child for no good reason.

His heart broke at that point and he burst into tears. It was the first time he had cried in nineteen years.

When Jean Valjean left the bishop’s, as we saw, he was in a state far beyond anything he had ever experienced till that moment. He did not recognize himself. He could not make sense of what was happening to him. He steeled himself against the old man’s angelic act and against his gentle words. “You promised me to make an honest man of yourself. It is your soul that I am buying for you; I am taking it away from the spirit of perversity, and I am giving it to the good Lord.” Those words kept coming back to him. He defended himself against such heavenly forgiveness by means of pride, which is like a stronghold of evil inside us. He felt indistinctly that the old priest’s forgiveness was the greatest assault and the most deadly attack he had ever been rocked by; that if he could resist such clemency his heart would be hardened once and for all; that if he gave in to it, he would have to give up the hate that the actions of other men had filled his heart with for so many years and which he relished; that this time, he had to conquer or be conquered, a colossal and decisive struggle, was now on between his own rottenness and the goodness of that man.

In the glimmering light of all these thoughts, he staggered like a drunk. While he was flailing about, did he have any real idea what his adventure in Digne might mean for him? Did he hear all those mysterious warning bells that alert us or jog our spirit at certain turning points in life? Was there a voice that whispered in his ear that he had just passed the most solemn moment of his destiny, that there was no longer a middle course for him; that from now on, he would either be the best of men or he would be the worst of men; that he now had to rise higher, so to speak, than the bishop or fall even lower than the galley slave; that if he wanted to be good, he had to be an angel; that if he wanted to stay bad, he had to be monster from hell?

Unlike Honda, Valjean’s whole existence rests precisely in what choice he makes for himself—to be the best or worst of men. It creates an expectation of judgment by a neutral force, outside the ordinary forces of reality: implicitly, God as represented by the good bishop.

I find it meaningful that even though Honda and Valjean both approach their separate life struggles from opposite points of view about the nature of reality, they both experience it as a form of obliteration and rebirth, for Valjean’s violent emotional grappling with himself concludes, “Then all of a sudden, he [Valjean] evaporated completely. The bishop alone remained. He flooded the entire soul of this miserable being with a glorious radiance. … While he was crying, day dawned brighter and brighter in his spirit, and it was an extraordinary light, a light at once ravishing and terrible.”

In reading these passages side by side, I cannot help but observe that both require us to accept limits, to acknowledge that our vision of ultimate reality does cradle what our individual existence can mean. In both cases, submission feels like a form of death and rebirth, yet it also provides a sudden bright clarity: How am I to live?

~ Cassandra Farrin


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Bible and Homosexuality

The Church's Dance in the 21st Century - Part 2


"The men of the city -- of Sodom, compassed the town round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter; And they called unto Lot and said to him, "Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out to us that we may know them (Gen.19: 4,5, KJV)."

"And (Lot) said, 'I pray you, brethren do not (act) so wickedly, Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes (Gen. 19:7,8, KJV)."

A Sodomite! That once meant only a citizen of the city of Sodom. Today, however, this word usually means one who performs a sexual act with a person of the same gender, though it is also used to refer to both oral and anal sex and even to bestiality. That is quite a journey for a word to take and it cries out for an explanation, which I shall seek to provide in this column. This biblical story of Sodom is regularly quoted in the gay debate, but it is quite obviously seldom, if ever, read. I begin, therefore, by relating the entire biblical story of the destruction of Sodom.

A long time ago, the narrative begins, three men appeared before Abraham in the Plains of Mamre. One of these was the Lord. The other two were later identified as angels. Abraham, as was the custom in the nomadic Middle East, went out to meet his visitors to offer them the hospitality of his home. He washed their feet and prepared food for them. Sarah, Abraham's wife, assisted in that preparation, but she did not eat with them because she was a woman.

At dinner, these divine visitors revealed to Abraham that Sarah was to have a baby. This would enable God to fulfill the divine promise made to Abraham that "through his 'seed' all the nations of the earth would be blessed." There was, however, a problem. Sarah was well advanced in years, or as the King James' text, which I have deliberately quoted, puts it ever so delicately, "it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women." Sarah, hearing this conversation, laughed out loud, uttering words that later Victorians would never have used or even understood: "After I have waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?" To which these divine visitors responded, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?"

Next, the Lord decided that since Abraham was to be the father of a great and mighty nation, it behooved the Lord to share with him the divine plan for destroying the entire city of Sodom.

The Lord appeared to have received reports that the city of Sodom was very sinful. Not certain as to the accuracy of these reports, the Lord decided to check out the sources to make sure that the divine intelligence was competent. So the two angelic companions were to journey to Sodom, while the Holy One remained with Abraham to reveal to him the fate of Sodom, in which Abraham's nephew Lot lived, if the angels confirmed the divine suspicions. God apparently was not all knowing, so needed eyewitness verification.

Abraham then engaged the Lord in a bargaining session, patterned after the activities of the market places of that region, in which the seller seeks to gain for his goods a price twice their value and the buyer seeks to pay half of what they are worth. Before the final price is agreed to, a vigorous debate takes place. Abraham, in effect opened the bidding with this question of the Lord. "Will you go to Sodom and destroy the righteous with the wicked?" That seemed to Abraham to be a rather ungodlike thing to do. "Suppose," he continued, "that there be fifty righteous within the city, wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty that are therein?" That would not be fair argued Abraham, reminding God that "the Judge of all the earth" must do right. When God agreed to this number, then Abraham pressed his advantage. "Suppose you miss by five, would the shortfall of just five righteous people trigger the destruct button?" God accepts forty-five as the cutoff number. Abraham continued the debate, reminding God that he knows how impertinent this is for one who is "but dust and ashes" to confront the Holy One, but he pushes the bargaining process down to forty righteous people, then thirty, then twenty and finally ten, at which point Abraham secures the divine promise not to destroy Sodom for the sake of ten righteous people. The deal now struck, the Lord departs, and Abraham returns to his tent, while the two angelic spies enter the city of Sodom.

There were no hotels. Under the hospitality code of the time, visitors to a city had no rights unless a citizen of the city accorded them a welcome. Failing that, strangers were fair game for abuse, which usually took the form of forcing them to take the role of women in sexually abusive acts. These episodes served to break the monotony of village life. When the citizens of Sodom saw these strangers, hopes rose in anticipation of a night of debauchery.

However, Lot, Abraham's nephew, took these visitors into his home, thwarting the nocturnal fantasies of his fellows. Enraged, they surrounded Lot's house demanding that Lot surrender these two angelic guests to them for a night of fun and games. The hospitality code of that society, however, proclaimed that once the protection of a home was offered, the honor of the whole household would be destroyed if that protection were compromised. So Lot refused the demands of his neighbors, which only roused the crowd. Lot then made a counter offer. "I will give you instead," he said, "my two virgin daughters and you may do to them what you will." The implication was that the two daughters could be gang-raped for the evening's entertainment. That is exactly what was said to have happened in a very similar tale told in the 19th chapter of the Book of Judges. There is no indication in this narrative that Lot's daughters were consulted about this offer. They were, after all, only 'women' and thus had no rights. Women were viewed as the property of their father, who could do with them, as he desired.

The story then says that the angels rescued Lot from the angry crowd with supernatural power, turning the members of the mob blind. Next, the angels ordered Lot and his family to flee the city. Ten righteous people had not been found in Sodom, so its doom was certain. Lot, his wife, and their two daughters were to be the only people in Sodom who were allowed to escape the promised destruction. Even the two prospective husbands of Lot's daughters who, the text says were part of the angry mob, declined an invitation to join the escape party.

Lot's first plan was to enter the city of Zoar, but recalling the fate of unprotected strangers in a foreign city, he opted not to run that risk, heading instead for the mountains. His wife disobeyed the divine instruction, we are told, and looked back to see the fire and brimstone falling and was turned magically into a pillar of salt. So only Lot and his two daughters were finally judged to be righteous and thus worthy of deliverance.

This strange story is not over yet. The 'righteous' Lot, compromised already by the offering of his two daughters to the men of the city, was destined to be compromised again. Those daughters slowly began to recognize that they now had no clan or tribe from which to find husbands. That was a calamity in a world that taught women that their sole purpose in life was to bear children. Noting that their father was now the only male available to them, they conspired to get him drunk and then they turned him into their sexual partner, both becoming pregnant and giving birth to sons, named Moab and Ammon, through incest. On this note the story of Sodom finally comes to an end. Check it out in Genesis 18 and 19.

Here we have an ancient biblical narrative that features a God who needs divine emissaries to gather first hand intelligence. It is a story that portrays the men of Sodom as eager to violate sexually two angelic strangers. It is a story in which a father, in order to honor the hospitality code, offers his virgin daughters to be gang raped. It is a story about scheming daughters who seduce a drunken father into dual acts of incest. How, in the name of all that is holy, could a story like this ever have come to be used as the biblical basis for condemning faithful, loving, committed gay and lesbian relationships? How could anyone ever suggest that this story be used to fan human prejudices and thereby to encourage the violent behavior that has marked both our homophobic world and our homophobic church? That would be possible only if a sick and uninformed prejudice overwhelmed all rationality and destroyed all moral judgment.

Of course, gang rape is wrong, whether homosexual or heterosexual people carry it out. Of course, the plot to commit incest is wrong. But what does that have to do with the hopes and aspirations of two women or two men in the 21st century, who love each other and who want to live for and with each other in a blessed partnership of intimacy and faithfulness? To use this text to condemn the legitimate desires of homosexual people is to attempt to perfume a sick homophobia with the sweet smell of Holy Scripture. On the basis of this text, prejudiced people have fashioned bitter, hostile, destructive attitudes that have victimized gay and lesbian people through the ages. This means that the Bible has been used to justify the murder, oppression and persecution of those whose only crime, or 'sin' if you prefer, is that they were born with a sexual orientation different from the majority. Such a tactic is so blatantly evil, so overtly ignorant and so violently prejudiced that it should be worthy of nothing but condemnation. If that constitutes biblical morality, I want none of it. The Sodom story from Genesis should never be used in the service of homophobic oppression.

Still unfazed by facts, the Bible quoters continue to seek to shelter their prejudices inside the authority of Scripture. "What about Paul?" they say. "Did not Paul condemn homosexual behavior? Is Paul not proclaiming the 'Word of God' to which Christians must listen?' To the texts from Paul I will turn next week.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published April 7, 2004




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