Gene Robinson is the ninth Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. He was elected to his post in 2003 amid controversy: He's the first openly gay and non-celibate man to hold that rank within the Episcopal Church.
While this characteristic has come to define him in some voters' minds, it is far from the entirety of who he is and what he stands for. His sexual orientation has certainly caused trials, but he says he sees them as learning experiences.
I spoke with him last week. His remarks below are timely: He lives in a swing state coveted by both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Another swing state, North Carolina, voted on Tuesday to constitutionally bar same-sex marriage. Most notably, President Obama said on Wednesday that he supports same-sex marriage.
Would you share with my readers how you came to be involved in a life of faith?
Yes, I grew up in the Disciples of Christ denomination in Kentucky within a very fundamentalist congregation of that church, although it's kind of a mainstream, liberal church as a national denomination. I grew uncomfortable with the narrowness that I experienced there and found the Episcopal Church in college. I found a wonderful home within the Episcopal Church, went to seminary, and became a priest close to 40 years ago. I was elected in 2003 by the clergy and laity of the Diocese of New Hampshire to be their bishop.
I recently interviewed an elder of the Westboro Baptist Church, which has actually picketed you. It claims to be an extreme literalist denomination. How would you describe the Episcopal Church in terms of where it falls on the scale with extreme literalism on one side and very liberal belief on the other?
Well, first of all I think it's important to say that the Westboro group is an extremist hate group that, frankly, no responsible Christian denomination or individual would remote claim as Christian. They may call themselves that, but I don't know anyone in the responsible Christian world who would say they fall within the bounds of anything like a group of people committed to the teachings of Jesus. They are so far outside the mainstream they are not representative of Christians at all. Even conservative evangelical Christians condemn them.
So on a scale from 1 to 10 with literalism being one and very liberal belief being 10 the WBC is about a negative-5?
Maybe even negative-10. Their claims to take scripture literally can so easily be disproved. My guess is they eat shrimp, wear two kinds of cloth on their bodies at the same time, plant two different kinds of seeds in their gardens all of which are prohibited by the book of Leviticus. Never mind when Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke if you would follow Him you must give up all your possessions. Let's be clear: No one lives literally by the Bible.
How should scripture be interpreted?
We all interpret it and find ways of re-interpreting passages in light of their context and in light of our context. Any passage must be interpreted in the light of the full, entire message of scripture.
Mainline denominations have been doing this for quite some time. We take scripture quite seriously. We take seriously the tradition of the Church and how it's interpreted that scripture. Then we apply our own reason and experience to ask, "What did those words mean to the people who wrote them? What did they mean to the people to whom they were originally addressed?" Only then can we ask if they are eternally binding.
Some we feel are eternally binding, like loving your neighbor as yourself. Some things are not eternally binding, whether they be negative comments about women, positive comments about slavery, or the Leviticus "holiness code" distinctions and laws. They were a way for the ancient Israelites for defining themselves in opposition to the hostile cultures around them.
How do differences in interpretation arise, and is there a hope for an eventual unification of belief?
Given the diversity of human beings and the diversity of Christians I doubt we will ever come to a unified understanding of scripture. Life is complicated, and we search in all kinds of places for answers to life's most perplexing problems and circumstances. The bible is certainly one of the tools that we use [in the search for answers.]
I don't take the Bible to be the words of God. I take it to be the Word of God. That is to say it's the story of a community of people who had a relationship with the living God. They set about writing down what that experience was like for them so those of us who came after would have a sort of "heads up" on how we might locate the living God in our own lives.
Those on the more fundamentalist end of Christianity might say that the words in the Bible are not just inspired by God, but virtually dictated by God.
Is that what is meant by "inerrant literalism?"
Yes, but inerrancy is a bit of a misnomer in the sense that the Bible is internally not unified. The simplest example of that is that there are two completely different Creation stories. We talk about the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve as if that's the only story, but it's not. There are two different stories written by different people at different times in the history of ancient Israel. Even internally the Bible is not necessarily consistent. Unless you ask the context question it's just inappropriate to claim inerrancy. The Bible itself is not internally inerrant.
No one, not me or anyone else, has "The Truth." We all have our own take on the truth and that applies to people in religion and people reading scripture. We will never completely understand God. Each of us has comprehended and apprehended God in our own particular way. We each only have our interpretation of the truth as we've experienced it.
We need to be very careful of anyone who is certain of God's Will. Lots of people have been "certain" of it, and Adolf Hitler comes to mind [as one of them]. Atrocities have been committed since the beginning of time by people who felt they owned "The Truth." Those have been some of the most destructive people in our history. The world has paid a great price because of those people.
There are substantial differences between your outlook on Christianity and that of the fundamental evangelical movement. Are those differences healthy disagreements or more of a divisive force?
It's certainly divisive and it complicates things. I don't have any trouble with someone having a more conservative view of God than I do. The problem really comes when they try to take that view into the public sphere and into civil discourse. If you scratch, not very deeply even, those people would like to create and live in a theocracy as long as the powers that be believe the way they do.
I think you'll see a great example of this in the conservative Christian movement, and I'd include the Roman Catholic Church in that, trying to block marriage equality for all. I believe we need to protect any church, synagogue or mosque's right not to preside over a gay marriage, or to bless or authorize those relationships in any way. When they use their influence to change the debate or affect the vote around marriage equality for all then they are imposing their own beliefs on the rest of us.
We often think of the separation of church and state as being there to protect religious institutions form being dictated to by the state but it works both ways. The church, synagogue and mosque dare not dictate to the state what it will and will not do. If we separated the civil institution of marriage form whatever the church, synagogue or mosque does then we would get much further along in this debate.
I'm surprised - you may be the first person of your stature from a religious body I have ever heard express that opinion.
[Laughs genially] Let me just say that the view I hold is not an isolated or minority view. There are many of us in the business of religion who believe that the church should not be dictating to the culture what is or is not guaranteed by the Constitution [of the United States.] What is guaranteed by the Constitution is equal justice under the law.
The issue of marriage has gotten very complicated in America because we have deputized clergy to be agents of the state in performing marriages. In countries like France everyone - everyone - gets married at the Mayor's office and then people of faith go to their place of worship and do whatever blessing that religion does.
In this country the civil part of marriage and the religious part of marriage get thoroughly confused when you use clergy as agents of the state. In my own diocese I have urged my clergy to get out of the marriage business. They can look to the congregation for someone who is a Justice of the Peace so when someone comes to the church to be married, gay or straight, they can let that person do what the state does. Then they move into the service of blessing which the church offers. We'd be much further along if we made that kind of separation [a standard practice.]
People know this to be true because when their marriages come apart and they want a divorce they don't go back to the sweet little church where they got married [to file for divorce.] The go to the courts. It's very clear when you stop to think about it that it is the state that presides over the institution of marriage. People just don't stop to think about it.
I've spoken with people living overseas who want to return to the United States but can't do so in a practical way because of the American problem with marriage between people of the same gender. What goes into that?
The reason for that is the Defense of Marriage Act at the federal level. I've been with a man for 25 years and am legally married in New Hampshire but in the eyes of the federal government, because of DOMA, I am not treated as being married to my husband. One of the things precluded under DOMA is the immigration law available to heterosexuals. If a heterosexual wants to marry someone overseas they can come here and be married. That does not apply to homosexuals because of DOMA.
The Obama administration has stopped defending it in court. I think its days are numbered. It'll just be a matter of seeing when we can get that [abolition of DOMA] accomplished.
I'd like to wrap up by giving you the opportunity to pass on any message you like with my readers. What would you like to share with them?
Well, to those who say they don't believe in God I'd say, "Tell me about the God you don't believe in and the chances are pretty good I don't believe in that God either." There are voices out there, unfortunately noisy voices, who portray God as someone I would never give allegiance to. Don't assume that a voice that makes you crazy from some Christians is the voice of all Christians. Some of those voices make me crazy too, and embarrass me, too. They make it a shameful thing to bear the name "Christian."
These days you have to follow "I'm a Christian" with "…but not that kind of Christian." Unfortunately the Jerry Falwells and the Pat Robertsons of the world have succeeded in convincing most of the population that they, and their views, represent Christianity. That is simply not the case. You have to work a little bit to find those communities of faith that espouse a belief that God loves all of His children without exception. That's the kind of God I believe in.
The readers need to be a little bit sophisticated in sorting through what they hear coming from the mouths of some and not attribute those views to all of us. It does us a disservice and might keep people from finding a church, mosque or synagogue that will help them develop their relationship with the living God.
We'll close on that note. I want to repeat how much I appreciate you giving your time to speak with me.
I'm delighted to have talked to you.