Jennings book event–(The importance of) history and context (and how they function)

Plato or Paul? is an impressive text, by virtue of its detail alone. Rather then expend the time noting its achievements, I want to focus on one contribution of this text that I found particularly valuable, and the subsequent concerns and questions that arise for me in light of that contribution. Jennings explains:

Homophobia, far from being a natural concomitant of Christian perspectives, actually takes a very long time to be engrafted onto the body of Christianity. It is in this sense a ‘foreign element’ that can therefore be removed without in any way affecting what is important about early or patristic Christianity (14).

What I find so valuable about this thesis, and the plethora of detailed supporting evidence accompanying it, is that it situates the “issue” (for lack of better words) of same-sex relationships within a context and a history. Condemnation of same-sex relationships, Jennings shows, is not some abstract truth that simply is—that is, it has a context; nor is it a reality that has always been present within the tradition—it also has a history. While these points may seem like no-brainers, I found this to be an important and refreshing emphasis of Plato or Paul? A great deal of philosophical and theological literature is speculative and abstract, operating from a paradigm where ideas can be separated and detached from the contexts they are formed from. Embedded within this text is the recognition that ideas and beliefs stem both from other ideas as well as from concrete material realities. While not the main emphasis of his analysis, Jennings acknowledges the significance of political economy and concrete material realities in the construction of ideas (I’m thinking specifically here of his exegesis of Romans 1) as well as, what is foregrounded in this text, the broader context and history of ideas as shaping the Christian narrative of same-sex relationships as its come to be.

In a old debate about the doctrine of the Trinity in Modern Theology, Catherine LaCugna, in trying to create the space for a mutually constructive relationship between philosophy of religion and theology, comments:

From the theologian’s point of view, exegesis of dogmatic or theological statements requires setting them within their own particular history. This means taking into account, first of all, the whole context of a theologian’s writings, including his/her intellectual development over time. It means as well placing a theological system in the wider context of the history of theology.*

I laughed when I first read this statement—so, so much of the theology I’ve encountered has failed to do what LaCugna sees as necessary to theological work. Part of what I found so refreshing about this text is that Jennings does do this, and does it well!

In light of that attention to context and to history, I did have some concerns; or, rather, some questions as to how history operates in Plato or Paul?. What is the telos of history for Jennings? What does Jennings assume in exploring this thesis, in tracing this “development of homophobic discourse” (43)?

These questions become particularly heightened for me in Jennings’ conclusion. In offering a summation to the question that the book explored, of how homophobia comes to be associated with Christianity, he suggests:

The short answer is that it comes not from the Bible but from philosophy; its native language is not Herew, but Greek; its home is not Jerusalem, but Athens (and Alexandria); its chief protagonist is not Paul but Plato (220).

He goes on to suggest that “Hellenistic (rather than Biblical or Pauline) homophobia comes to be engrafted upon Christianity” (221), and that “There was a time before homophobia insinuated itself into Christianity” (223).

I have questions or concerns about what this assumes and what this suggests—i.e.,  that there is some sort of pure kernel of Christianity that we must return to, that Christianity exists as a distinct entity or idea apart from its context and history, etc…  (This reminded me a lot of how Robert Jenson accounts for the relationship between Christianity and Hellenistic culture in The Triune Identity…) Connected with this notion is a sort of decline narrative that I’m also somewhat uncomfortable with—that Christianity was once pure and undefiled, and has been defiled by time and cultural influence.

I bring up these concerns as questions, though, because I’m not sure if this is what Jennings is actually doing. Is this text a sort of retrieval project? It seems as though another way to read what he is doing here is to complicate a different sort of notion of purity many assume about homophobic discourse within the Christian tradition (both those who would name it as such and those who would frame it instead as something like Biblical prohibitions against homosexuality… read: both those who are “liberal” and “conservative” on this “issue”).

For example, in the introduction to his section on Paul, he explains that he he “will try to show that the homophobic reading of these texts is not self-evident and that other readings may be far more plausible” (111). And later, when he is discussing the way Scripture is appropriated, he explains, “we saw that the homophobic interpretation of Romans 1:26-27 is by no means the only coherent interpretation of that passage…” (198). Comments like these are scattered throughout the book. These seem to suggest a less clear account of the relationship between homophobia and the Christian tradition than Jennings claims at other points—that rather then the history of homophobic discourse being clear, in either instance, its more complicated, and the current ethos of much of the Christian church and clear narration of the Christian tradition as being against same-sex relationships from the beginning is misguided.

While I’m prone to appeal to this account of his argument, it is not at all clear that this is what his intent is. The clarity of many of his claims seem to suggest that he is, in fact, suggesting a decline narrative of sorts—which, of course, is fine, but is an argument I’d be much less enthusiastic about. As a whole, it seems like these questions—of the telos of history, of the way context functions within the formation of a tradition or narrative—seem to be questions he does not fully address or account for.

* Catherine Mowry LaCugna, “Philosophers and Theologians on the Trinity,” Modern Theology 2:3, 1986, 172.

11 thoughts on “Jennings book event–(The importance of) history and context (and how they function)

  1. It sounds to me like you are pointing out a tension between those two concepts- namely, context and history. The concept of context, as it is usually deployed in scholarship, assumes that things are fixed. A thing has a meaning that comes from its particular relations that exist at a point in space and time. The concept of history, on the other hand, at least as you are using it in this post, focuses on the way things escape and change contexts. This is the tension between synchrony and diachrony, I guess.

  2. I simply don’t think it’s plausible to attempt to separate Christianity from ancient philosophy. I don’t think you can even conceive of the first days of Christianity in a space where the world is not dominated by large empires whose ideologies are founded in ancient philosophy (i.e., the Roman Empire, the Ptolemaic dynasty, the Seleucid dynasty, etc). What John the Baptist does, for example, would be simply incomprehensible without that context.

  3. Right, obviously a separatist radical Jewish prophet can’t be comprehensible without Plato.

    I think that we don’t have to have a “fall” narrative, because obviously Christianity was never a fully pro-homoerotic movement. Even if the Gospel of John can be plausibly read as implying a homoerotic relationship between Jesus and the beloved disciple and even if the Hebrew Bible can be read has having homoerotic elements, neither is absolutely unambiguously pro-homoerotic overall — and there are elements that were there to be taken up in homophobia. I do find Ted’s demolition of the supposed obviousness of Paul’s homophobia to be very convincing, yet I think that all he really establishes is irreducible ambiguity — at best, Paul just doesn’t particularly care about homoeroticism as an issue.

    So it’s more that it could have gone either way, rather than that there was some pristine beginning that was betrayed. And since it could have gone either way, we are justified now in trying to push it the other way.

  4. Adam, I find your summary here pretty convincing. I have at times read commentary on Jennings work as suggesting that unequivocally demonstrating that the Bible was unambiguously pro-homoerotic, and I honestly found this mystifying. It would of course help if I read the book.

  5. Adam,

    I don’t actually think he can be comprehensible without Plato. Your own words actually indicate the opposite of your claim – separatist means what, in John the Baptist’s context? Separation or revolt against the dominant order of the time, i.e., Rome, an empire partially founded on it’s claims of achieving the goals of ancient philosophy. It’s no more strange than to say that an anti-capitalist activist in today’s Peru is reacting to an worldwide economic order based in the thought of Milton Friedman. And John the Baptist is living in a place where objections to ancient philosophy (i.e. Jewish opposition to Greek culture broadly construed) had dominated politics for at least two hundred years.

  6. And you were the one that equated ancient philosophy with Plato in caricaturing burritoboys argument. He’s simply adopting your “terms.”

  7. Adam,

    Judaism itself has generally understood it’s objections to Greek rule as a disagreement with Greek culture – in particular, explicitly the question of Greek philosophy. It’s one of the major questions of Jewish thought, and always has been. Philo, Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, Gersonides, Joseph Albo, Judah Halevi, Emile Fackenheim and many others were all major players in this discussion.

    I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that Rome presented itself as, among other things, a good state according to the philosophers. Much of Cicero’s work centers on trying to prove this. Several of the Emperors present themselves as philosophers, and seem to make use of Plato’s philosopher-king concept. Rome spends a lot of resources importing Greek philosophy and philosophers into Rome, including the emperors themselves luring Greek philosophers to what were effectively endowed professorships so that Greek philosophers teach in Rome.

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