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Eugene Peterson Shrugs

Why theological indifference is worse than progressivism.
Eugene Peterson Shrugs
Image: themacx / iStock

Shortly after this article was published, Eugene Peterson retracted his statement and affirmed a biblical view of marriage instead. More information can be found here.

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In an interview published yesterday with Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Service, Eugene Peterson announced his willingness to perform same-sex weddings and his general support for same-sex couples in churches. While the headline says Peterson has “changed his mind” on the issue, it would be more accurate to say that he simply has become willing to speak about the issue and his relative indifference to it.

Multiple times he clarifies it isn’t a big deal to him. The churches where he served have always had gay members. “People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church,” Peterson concludes. “So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.”

Peterson’s response is not quite what you have in others who really have changed their mind about the issue of same-sex relationships, such as David Gushee, Rob Bell, or Julie Rodgers. Gushee argues that supporting same-sex couples is in keeping with the biblical command to love one’s neighbor, and Rodgers argues that marriage itself is a school of virtue and same-sex couples should be allowed to marry so they too can have access to that resource.

They are making arguments about which we can disagree—we can talk about the end toward which Christian love is directed or the meaning of marriage and have fruitful or at least clarifying debate. It’s much harder to do that with someone like Peterson. His interview is not so much an attempt to argue for full inclusion of LGBT people in the church, but simply to brush aside the issue as being mostly unimportant.

In fact, this theological indifference is a far more pernicious approach than the straight-forward progressivism of Gushee, Bell, and Rodgers. While progressivism at least allows for a more direct theological debate, indifferentism banishes matters of significant theological concern to the margins.

A History of Indifferentism

At his best, Peterson has recognized the dangers of heterodoxy and warned his readers against them. In his 1982 book Traveling Light he wrote, “It is wicked to tell a person a lie about God because, if we come to believe the wrong things about God, we will think wrong things about ourselves, and we will live meanly or badly. Telling a person a lie about God distorts reality, perverts life and damages all the processes of living.”

But the overall approach of his work has been chiefly focused on the individual’s practice of piety and relationship to God and his community. While this approach can be enormously helpful, it can also inadvertently marginalize theology proper and fail to reckon with the ways that dogmatics and Christian piety intersect.

In its origins, this error is simply a perverted form of a classic Protestant idea. In the aftermath of the break from the Roman church in the 16th century, many Protestants rightly emphasized the idea of adiaphora—Greek for “things indifferent.” It meant that there are many matters on which Scripture does not speak explicitly. The church should therefore not attempt to order a specific practice when Scripture itself fails to do so. This prevents pastors, for instance, from forcing their congregants to fast on a random saint’s feast day.

But this principle can easily be twisted into something more dangerous. George Marsden provides a good example of how this can happen in The Soul of the American University. Because America was committed to being both Christian and non-sectarian, America’s institutions tended to default to a “non-sectarian” posture. Questions that divided Protestants from one another came to be seen as adiaphora as well, even when they were foundational to the way a Christian community functions. Thus American universities stayed away from taking a position on an issue that divides Presbyterians from Methodists, such as presbyterian-style church government or an issue like baptism which divides Baptists from Presbyterians and Episcopalians.

Unfortunately, you can’t really be agnostic on many of the questions American Christians wanted to be agnostic about. Many of the questions we relegated to the realm of “things indifferent” are pervasive enough that something will eventually have to address that question for you. If “sectarian” Christian positions are not acceptable answers, then you’ll find something else.

In American history, that “something else” is often an Enlightenment-inspired progressivism that sees human history as an advancing narrative of people being liberated from unchosen norms and freed toward greater levels of self-actualization. Such progressivism, of course, draws more heavily from Rousseau, Voltaire, and other 18th century philosophers than it does classical orthodoxy. In Marsden’s telling, this basic fact drove the secularization of the American university as decision making became more and more governed by pragmatism rather than orthodoxy. As this happened, more and more of the faith was regarded as non-essential and sectarian.

Sexual Ethics’ Descent Into Adiaphora

This approach is driving the shift on matters of sexual ethics. Evangelicals have by now become very comfortable with a pragmatic approach to theological questions as they relate to the life of our communities. Further, because of a narrow focus on questions of salvation, we have wrongly concluded that doctrines not essential for salvation are, therefore, things indifferent. (We have, in other words, lost the distinction between something that is false but not damnable, which we might call heterodoxy, and something that is truly indifferent.)

As a result, we are now witnessing an attempt to relegate questions of sexuality to this same realm, not because Scripture is silent on these matters (it isn’t) but because it is much easier to default to the cultural posture of affirmation and acceptance.

Indeed, you could argue that last year’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society foreshadowed Peterson’s announcement this week. In a panel on sexual ethics, several panelists repeatedly attempted to place the question of homosexuality in the same general realm of importance as questions of baptism—something which is important for individual churches to decide for themselves, but not something on which there is only one acceptable orthodox position.

This mirrors the position Peterson staked out in the interview: Churches should live and let live, accepting that more conservative members may leave affirming churches, but that this does not mean affirming churches are necessarily wrong on these matters.

The trouble with this indifferentism is simple: It does not take ideas seriously. But because the particular issue at stake here (sexuality) is central to human existence, you can’t really afford to pretend the issue isn’t important. Either it is okay to be in a same-sex relationship or it is not. Either way, your answer to that question will have enormous spiritual and existential ramifications. Because it fails to recognize this fact, indifferentism of this sort ends up doing real damage to many people.

A Stance in Service to No One

The first thought I had while reading Peterson’s interview yesterday was not actually disappointment or sadness. His answer didn’t serve anyone on either side of the debate. His answer is shot through with an indifferent tone that seems sincerely baffled by the anger and discord this issue creates in the church and the broader culture.

For both sides, the stakes are high. For both sides, indifference loses key legislative battles. If sexual identity is as central to our being as progressives say it is, then the indifference of Peterson is not something to be celebrated, but something to be condemned as a form of moral cowardice.

For traditionalists, Peterson’s indifference is an even greater threat to the health of our community than the progressivism of a Matthew Vines or David Gushee. It is not progressive argument that will hollow out the Christian teachings on sexuality or the communities that those teachings help to create and preserve. It is indifference that will cause us to neglect the centrality of the natural family and the ways that same-sex marriage undermines these natural relationships.

On matters of sexual ethics, we can say one of two things about the traditional sexual ethic. It is either essential to the flourishing of human communities because it shows us how human society is meant to reproduce itself on the most basic, local level, or it is unimaginably cruel to a considerable minority of the population by denying them something essential to their own individual flourishing. The one thing it can never be is moderately important. The progressives and the traditionalists alike understand this. It is alarming that Peterson doesn’t.

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He lives in Lincoln NE with his wife Joie, daughter Davy Joy, and son Wendell.

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Eugene Peterson Shrugs