Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Rowan Williams and Scripture

Recently Rowan Williams gave a lecture on Scripture in Canada. I have not gotten around to reading the whole thing, but Michael Jensen over at The Blogging Parson highlighted the comments that were made about Romans 1, and proceeded to wonder about rhetorical effects of Paul's argument. Essentially I think Jensen is asking that If Paul is granting his readers something to make a bigger point, doesn't the thing he grant logically have to be true for the rhetorical argument to work. I think that is a good question!

But I don't think the answer is as easy as Jensen may suspect. The paradox that Williams highlights draws attention to the irony and at the same time points to the tension in the conservative position in attempting to read Paul's argument against the grain. It also opens up the question of who Paul's readers actually are (Jews/or gentiles) and what the rhetorical trap of 2.1 is actually being set for? I think it also brings up some questions between the use of ancient rhetoric and how we as moderns 'feel' about that when it comes to questions of Scripture.

Paul in the first chapter of Romans famously uses same-sex relationships as an illustration of human depravity – along with other ‘unnatural’ behaviours such as scandal, disobedience to parents and lack of pity. It is, for the majority of modern readers the most important single text in Scripture on the subject of homosexuality, and has understandably been the focus of an enormous amount of exegetical attention.

What is Paul’s argument? And, once again, what is the movement that the text seeks to facilitate? The answer is in the opening of chapter 2: we have been listing examples of the barefaced perversity of those who cannot see the requirements of the natural order in front of their noses; well, it is precisely the same perversity that affects those who have received the revelation of God and persist in self-seeking and self-deceit. The change envisaged is from confidence in having received divine revelation to an awareness of universal sinfulness and need. Once again, there is a paradox in reading Romans 1 as a foundation for identifying in others a level of sin that is not found in the chosen community.

Now this gives little comfort to either party in the current culture wars in the Church. It is not helpful for a ‘liberal’ or revisionist case, since the whole point of Paul’s rhetorical gambit is that everyone in his imagined readership agrees in thinking the same-sex relations of the culture around them to be as obviously immoral as idol-worship or disobedience to parents. It is not very helpful to the conservative either, though, because Paul insists on shifting the focus away from the objects of moral disapprobation in chapter 1 to the reading /hearing subject who has been up to this point happily identifying with Paul’s castigation of someone else. The complex and interesting argument of chapter 1 about certain forms of sin beginning by the ‘exchange’ of true for false perception and natural for unnatural desire stands, but now has to be applied not to the pagan world alone but to the ‘insiders’ of the chosen community. Paul is making a primary point not about homosexuality but about the delusions of the supposedly law-abiding.

Hopefully AKMA's Random Thoughts will touch on this!


michael jensen said...

Hmm: but I don't think the rhetoric of Rom 1-2 is a simple case of the 'you' in Rom 2 being a target for approbation and not the 'they' in Rom 1. Just because he turns the heat on the self-righteous in ch 2 doesn't let those in 1 off the hook. Why? Because actually in Rom 3 he is going to say they are both in the poo, so to speak. 'God does not have favourites' - that's the punchline.

metalepsis said...

Well first off I stumbled upon your blog, and have really enjoyed it!

I also agree that the interpretation you set forth is a popular one, and certainly a plausible one for that matter. I am not as enamored with that reading, for a number of reasons, which I won’t go into here.

But my question of the rhetorical function of this section still holds, in my mind, within your own interpretation. Paul is obviously using the ‘they’ to turn it on the ‘you’. But is Paul using hyperbole to make his case, do all the nations worship birds? Is every gentile being run by their degrading passions? Do the nations really know God’s decree? So it seems that what Paul is doing is using the ‘you’ groups words in order to get to 2.1, so the heat put on the ‘self-righteous’ IS the rhetorical point. So Rom 1 could very well just be a caricature of the ‘you’ groups own teaching, and if so does Paul have to believe that it is true in order to use it? I would say no. I think essentially Rom 3 would still have essentially the same impact, it is just not a sequential argument: (a) Rom 1 ‘they’ are in the poo, (b) ‘you’ are in the poo, (c) thus both groups are in the poo.

It could be (a) this is what the ‘you’ group argues (b) but the ‘you’ group can’t help you, they can’t even live up to their own teachings (c) the ‘you’ group doesn’t have the answers b/c all people groups are in the same lot.

Just a thought…