Putting Out FIRES
I’ve been reading Tim Otto’s Oriented to Faith over the past few weeks as I seek to help our church have healthy conversations about sexuality. Like many churches, ours is characterized by a wide diversity of views when it comes to how the church should live with and think/talk about homosexuality. As we have these conversations, one thing that I am convinced of is that we need to make space to hear from a plurality of Christian voices on these matters, whether it is those who would have an “affirming” view or those whose perspectives would run along more traditional lines.
Or those that don’t fit nicely in any camp. Like Tim Otto. I’m not quite done this little book yet, but I have thus far been introduced to a fascinating, complex, radically committed follower of Jesus Christ who pushes all readers, whatever their opinions on homosexuality, to rethink cherished assumptions and to relocate this fractious conversation where he is convinced it belongs: in the context of Christian discipleship. Otto is a gay pastor in San Francisco who has taken a vow of celibacy, not necessarily out of his own personal theological convictions about sexuality, but out of his higher theological convictions about the nature and shape of Christian community. How’s that for countercultural?
One of the chapters that has struck me the most forcefully so far is called “A Humble FIRE.” FIRE is an acronym based on how one of Otto’s mentors talked about the four “universal ideals” that are appealing to many in the postmodern West: Freedom, Individualism, Rights, and Equality. In this chapter, Otto pushes back against the default attraction and acquiescence to these ideals that so many of us have, Christian or otherwise, and the primacy that we lend to them. I think Otto’s critique in this chapter has implications that go far, far beyond debates about homosexuality. They call into question much of what many of us hold most dear in life, relocating each of these ideals to where Otto is convinced they belong: as secondary to the much higher demands of the call of Jesus and to each other.
A few excerpts from Oriented to Faith, then, about our love affair with FIRE. I would certainly have some questions for Otto on some of these passages (or at least the way he words them), but I am challenged by so much of what he says here.
“Scripture does not advocate freedom for freedom’s sake. As Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes, ‘After the Western ideal of unlimited freedom, after the Marxist concept of freedom as acceptance of the yoke of necessity—here is the true Christian definition of freedom: restriction of the self for the sake of others!” While Scripture sees freedom as a great good, it sees the true goal of freedom as the ability to do God’s will.
In the New Testament… the biblical vision is not of individuals living heroically spiritual lives so that the world might see that the Messiah has come. Rather, Jesus says it will be the disciples’ life together—the way they love one another and live in unity—that will witness to the world that the Messiah has come….
If individualism is our highest duty, then “expressing ourselves” and our sexuality becomes a sacred obligation. But if we understand ourselves as part of God’s people, we must ask, “How does my sexuality need to function in order to serve the community?”
The Enlightenment… passed down the “universal truth” about rights. Although an autopsy of a human being will never reveal a heart, a liver, and a bundle of rights… there is power in the appeal to appeal to respect “basic human rights.”
In the political realm, rights is a powerful tool, yet in everyday life, the use of “rights” language is often code for, “While I can’t defend what I’m doing on moral grounds, you and/or the government can’t stop me.” Christians ought to think carefully about rights language, because at the heart of our faith, we see Christ choosing to give up his rights.
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
— Philippians 2:4-8
Unfortunately, this ideal is distorted into the false idea that because we are all “equal” we don’t need to listen to anyone else. If I have heart trouble, I need to listen to my cardiologist, for though we are both of equal worth, she is my superior in knowledge about hearts.
So it is with moral knowledge. If someone has thought long and well about ethics, if someone is living a saintly life, if someone is conducting a love life that nourishes and builds up others, I will do well to listen to my superiors in Christian wisdom, for I have much to learn from them.
If it comes down to a choice of listening to ourselves or Christian tradition and Scripture, we ought to listen to the latter. Of course, we will have to wrestle with the question, “what is the most truthful interpretation of the tradition and Scripture?” But we will definitely end up on the wrong track if we stubbornly follow our individual thinking just because we’re “equal” with everyone else.
Some might find this critique of FIRE offensive, because these ideas brought about so much good for women, ethnic minorities, and the LGBT community. Though these FIRE ideas can bring about great good in the world, they are not the essence of our faith and so must be interpreted in light of the entire Christian story.
If we let these ideas own our souls, we’re going to end up as cogs in the modern machine—“individualists” who are, ironically, the ultimate conformists. We’ll each be so detached from one another and so consumed with ourselves that we will enjoy little solidarity. We’ll be so busy pursuing our own freedom, expressing our own radical individualism, demanding our rights, and asserting our equality, that we’ll end up as separate, self-absorbed, rootless beings at the beck and call of the market with its mirages of money and prestige.
I am especially concerned about the effects that a distorted FIRE ethic might have on the church. If “equality” is my ethic, why would I ever submit myself to a church body? If my faith is freedom, why should I ever commit to staying around for others? If individualism is my instinct, why should make myself interdependent with others? If rights are my religion, why would I ever risk getting close enough to others to get wounded?