Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/10/2010

Texas, Lutherans, Julia Kristeva, and LGBT Folks “Standing on the Promises”

The congregation of a mostly gay church singing—

Standing on the promises of Christ my King,
Through eternal ages let His praises ring,
Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing,
Standing on the promises of God.

Refrain

Standing, standing,
Standing on the promises of God my Savior;
Standing, standing,
I’m standing on the promises of God.

Standing on the promises I now can see
Perfect, present cleansing in the blood or me;
Standing in the liberty where Christ makes free,
Standing on the promises of God.      Refrain

Standing on the promises of Christ the Lord,
Bound to Him eternally by love’s strong cord,
Overcoming daily with the Spirit’s sword,
Standing on the promises of God.       Refrain

—is a moderately mind-boggling image. Especially in Dallas. Texas will surely be nearly the last state to guarantee the right of LGBT persons to marry—just before Louisiana and Mississippi in 3010. “Standing in the liberty. . . .?” Gays “bound to Him eternally by love’s strong cord?” Not in Texas churches.

Most of the American church doesn’t allow gays to “stand in the liberty where Christ makes free.” The State of Massachusetts guarantees gays and lesbians the right to marry, but neither the Evangelical Lutheran Church nor the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church makes provision for it—these churches whose founder wrote that Christians have

a freedom only to do good with eagerness and to live a good life without the coercion of the law. This freedom . . . does not suspend the law but [supplies] what the law demands, namely eagerness and love. These silence the law so that it has no further cause to drive people on and make demands of them (1).

The church is of little interest to me—except I grew up in it and have worked for it all my life and it saturates my thinking whether or not I want it to. I know some of the language of the church and can use it (probably wrongly) to explain some of my ideas. So here goes. This is not a lesson in religion.

In spite of his declarations of spiritual freedom, Luther, apparently had some strange ideas about sex. Perhaps this is why the church has so much trouble understanding that eagerness and love “silence the law.”

Now, alas, it [sex] is so hideous and frightful a pleasure that physicians compare it with epilepsy or falling sickness.  Thus an actual disease is linked with the very activity of procreation.  We are in the state of sin and of death; therefore we also undergo this punishment, that we cannot make use of woman without the horrible passion of lust and, so to speak, without epilepsy (2) —(if you don’t look at any other footnotes, please check this one; it is a bafflement).

So, for the Evangelical Lutheran Church (or at least to one of its writers on ethics, or perhaps to Luther himself) one can’t use a woman—use a woman?—without horrible passion and EPILEPSY.

There’s a fine howdy-do! Perhaps I can have sex with a man without EPILEPSY. This is, I will admit, completely beyond my understanding. If any good Lutheran happens to read this posting, I hope she will leave a comment explaining what this all means. (I haven’t had a proper seizure since about Christmas, so perhaps none of it applies to me anyway.)

The exact meaning doesn’t really matter to what I want to say. I quote it simply to underscore the church’s confusion about sex in general and, by extension, gay sex in particular—about love in all of its ramifications.

The article from the JLE is confusing because some connection is missing (I should not cast aspersions). I turn to a chapter of one of Julia Kristeva’s works. Any work by Kristeva is confusing because it is dense and requires intense concentration, but it has great rewards for the persistent. That’s akin to saying listening to Renée Fleming will make one a better singer, but. . . .

. . . .a true revolution took place. . . .a new, unprecedented, scandalous, insane attitude, which transformed Greek Eros and biblical Ahav into Agape—Christian love. . . . Paul is responsible for the most precise and most specifically new expression of this unprecedented attitude. . . . Christian love is definitely a disinterested gift [emphasis in original]. Far from needing to deserve it or to fear its withdrawal by God, the Christian is assured of being loved, independently of his merits. Could that love also—especially?—be a love for those who are unworthy? Such a concept of theocentric love, [is] as opposed to human deserved love as it is to an eros aiming at happiness (3).

Julia Kristeva

Julia Kristeva

Kristeva’s subject here is not sexual love (it is, however, part of her complex exposition of many aspects of love). Her work is not a theological treatise, but a study of love and desire played out in the language of the self—written by a psychoanalyst and scholar. However, from what I have gleaned from a lifetime in the church, she has described the essence of ”christian” love—of the revolution in the idea of love from the Greeks and Hebrews to the early Christians. The basis for this love is, as any churchy person knows, the underserved of God for humans—the basis for the revolutionary understanding of love.

I’m not writing a Sunday School lesson. I’m working my way back to “Standing on the promises” sung by a congregation of LGBT persons. Love, this Agape love all of us churchy people have heard about so repeatedly the word has lost its meaning—its revolutionary meaning—Christian love is a “disinterested gift.” It is not earned. It is not legalistic.

Let me emphasize here its indebtedness to biblical love but also the difference that separates the two: agape is disinterested, less a choice than a benevolent generosity. . . . (4).

I will stop with the Kristeva already. (Her work involves so much more than a discussion of biblical love I should not even have mentioned it.) I’m reading the book right now, and in all of my churchy learning, I had never read (or have conveniently forgotten it) about the “revolutionary” idea of “disinterested love.”

Back to the churchiest of churchy language, which Kristeva quotes, Paul’s letter to the Romans: “David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works.” Or, as Roudiez translates the verse, “A man is happy if God considers him happy, irrespective of good deeds.”

An idea—expressed in St. Paul’s writing, in Kristeva’s commentary on that writing (which, I must emphasize, is but a building block of her magisterial and complex discussion of the many dimensions of love), and in the Gospel Hymn, “I’m standing on the promises of God”—the revolutionary idea is that love is “disinterested,” that is, that it demands nothing in return for itself.

I understand (and accept) “Standing on the promises” as a sort of religious artifact, an expression of spirituality that one may or may not believe, but which has had and still does have meaning for some people.  Anyone, churchy or not, who understands love that demands nothing in return, that it is “a benevolent generosity,” and does not require the adherence to any system of laws can take great pleasure in knowing a bunch of gays and lesbians sing “Standing on the Promises of God,” whether as a religious artifact or a statement of faith.

Such an understanding will also take great pleasure in full rights and equality.
__________
(1) Luther, Martin. Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, Trans. by Bro. Andrew Thornton OSB. Saitn Anselm College Humanities Program. 1983. Web. 10 Aug 2010.
(2) Diefelt, Wanda. “For God is also the God of Bodies: Embodiment and Sexuality in Martin Luther’s Theology.” Journal of Lutheran Ethics. Evangelical Church in America. February 2007. Web. 6 Aug 2010. Diefelt references: Martin Luther, “Lectures on Genesis Chapters 1-5,” Luther’s Works v. 1, 118-119. However, it’s impossible to tell exactly what is Luther and what is Diefelt. And I believe there is a sentence—perhaps an entire paragraph—missing as it is printed.
(3) Kristeva, Julia. Tales of Love. Trans. by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia U Press (139-140).
(4) ibid. 141.

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Responses

  1. I am one who adores Kristeva’s take on desire.

    “Disinterested love”. Will have to think that one over.

    It is a love beyond the recipriocrities and the mutalities, yet deeply rooted within them.

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    • As I said, it’s part of the argument, not the argument, leading to “completeness” in the “Other.” You know Kristeva takes contemplating and rereading—I haven’t finished yet. When I do, we’ll talk about the book. I just found it interesting that I happened upon that chapter as I was thinking about how wrong-headed most christians’ understanding is of their own holy book, especially the first great christian apologist, Paul, as interpreted by Luther.

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  2. And it will always shake you, break you, make you.

    Homosexuality and epilepsy can be separated from the person who has them, it is true.

    I can see what is meant about “silencing the law” (as Luther might have put it?)

    “Abjection, votre ami!”

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