BBC Lent Talks: Benjamin Cohen and gay-Jew 'blasphemy'
There is perhaps no greater task for the Church than that of communicating the gospel anew in each era; ensuring that the name of Jesus finds relevance and meaning for each group of people in every generation. There is little point in theologians becoming increasingly philosophical if their theology, or the language of their theology, bears little relation to the ordering of our lives in the world.
Christology, like all theology, is influenced by ontology and phenomenology, and is bound by language which may either elucidate or obscure. A primary challenge of applying that theology must be to establish how theological terms may be related to ordinary usages. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams talked of the need for a ‘critical theology’ which tests the language by asking whether emerging thought forms are still identical to, or at least continuous with, the ‘fundamental categories’ of theology. This process embraces both traditional orthodoxy and the philosophical theology of our (post-)modern context.
Theologians generally agree that there is not one but many christologies; that no single one is normative, and that all of them take form through the lens of socio-cultural-religious contexts. Jesus, indeed, has many names, and they are irreducibly pluralistic, conditioned by historical setting, language, and culture. Christian theology can appropriately credit the insight that the names of Jesus were variously linked in order to provide a more adequate or acceptable proclamation for a particular community. Since christology is labyrinthine, expressed through historically conditioned language, there is an evident challenge to develop new christologies for new generations.
So, what's wrong with a gay-Jew christology?
Benjamin Cohen is a former Channel 4 News correspondent. He is also the founder of PinkNews - a gay newspaper - and the online same-sex marriage campaign site Out4Marriage.
Mr Cohen is also human - a sentient and deeply spiritual creature who eats bread, feels want, tastes grief and needs friends. Just like you.
He was invited by the BBC to make a contribution to their 'Lent Talks' series in the run-up to Easter, which deal with the theme of 'abandonment'. They explain:
The Lent Talks feature six well-known figures from public life, the arts, human rights and religion, who reflect on how the Lenten story of Jesus' ministry and Passion continues to interact with contemporary society and culture. The 2013 Lent Talks consider the theme of "abandonment". In the Lenten story, Jesus is the supreme example of this - he died an outcast, abandoned and rejected by his people, his disciples and (apparently) his Father - God. But how does that theme tie in with today's complex world? There are many ways one can feel abandoned - by family, by society, by war/conflict, but one can also feel abandoned through the loss of something, perhaps power, job or identity. The Christian season of Lent is traditionally a time for self-examination and reflection on universal human conditions such as temptation, betrayal, greed, forgiveness and love, as well as abandonment.Mr Cohen's feelings of abandonment growing up a gay Jew in England were not as acute as (say) those of a gay Muslim growing up in Iran. He says:
“I was lucky, my family didn’t abandon me and I haven’t been rejected from my community, despite it being well known that I’m gay.Andrea Williams of Christian Concern said: “To link (homosexual) experience to that of Christ is to misunderstand the biggest event in history - it is blasphemous. To say that lack of acceptance of homosexual practice which we are told to flee in the Bible equates with the experience and suffering of Christ is to have totally misunderstood his message. Jesus loves everyone but his message to homosexual community is to turn away from their previous path.”
“Unfortunately, that’s not the case for everyone, and I’ve been written to by many young people whose families have abandoned them for being honest about who they love. Some parents give them an ultimatum to ignore their feelings or even undergo controversial reparative therapies to turn themselves straight. Shockingly, every year, hundreds of people, mainly teenagers kill themselves because of their family or society’s rejection of them, due to their sexuality.
“In many cases, the reason for this rejection is religion – something that really angers and upsets me. Religion should be about bringing families together, united in devotion and celebration, not tearing them apart.”
And she added: “The BBC panders to a liberal, politically correct agenda and fails to take the opportunity to explore and educate its listeners about the true meaning of Lent and Easter.”
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali said: “Of course people, whoever they are, should be treated with respect and dignity. But I think to confuse Christ’s identity as the son of God with your sexual preferences is firstly not understanding who Christ is and secondly not understanding who God wants us to be."
He added: “Of course there are things about us that we feel we can’t help but by God’s grace he can help us to live in a way that is obedient to him and his word.”
Looking at the invited six well-known figures (in addition to Benjamin Cohen there is Baroness Helena Kennedy, Alexander McCall Smith, Loretta Minghella, Imam Asim Hafiz and Canon Lucy Winkett), Ms Williams undoubtedly has a point about the BBC's left-liberal bias. But blasphemy? Really?
Nowhere in his talk does Benjamin Cohen defame Christ or denigrate the name of Jesus. One may quibble with his imperfect grasp of Christian theology, but His Grace is merely Anglican and so also utterly devoid of that perfect divine communion claimed by the theologically infallible. One could write a weighty dissertation on the question of whether or not Jesus had no choice but to die an agonising death on the cross - that is, 'for something he couldn’t help'. But to dismiss the coincident feelings of a gay Jew as 'blasphemy' is the real blasphemy. Jesus died for everyone: we are all sinners before the Throne of Grace. It is simply the feeling of helplessness in absence of choice in life's course which Mr Cohen meditates upon.
And His Grace uses 'meditates' purposefully. For it is a clear and deep reflection on the character and mission of Christ. Throughout his talk, Mr Cohen is respecful and reverent. Those who have leapt to judgment appear not have thought at all about the meaning of Christ to a gay Jew, preferring instead to cry 'blasphemy' as their precious and pure Christ is, once again, dragged through the mud and filth of a contrary christology.
Hanging on the cross, Jesus said: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For Mr Cohen, this echoes something of the fear of abandonment experienced by gay people. And he isn't entirely ignorant of his subject matter. He talks openly about the impact of being taught at an Anglican school that he, as a Jew, was responsible for the abandonment and crucifixion of Christ (..what a sensitive and intelligent RE teacher he must have had). He went on to study Theology at King’s College, University of London, and studied both the New Testament and the Torah. His final dissertation was on the Jinns of Islam in Morocco. His is not a voice of aggressive secularism: he is doing what all truly spiritual people do: making sense and finding meaning in the Messiah God-man who died that we might live.
Mr Cohen explains: "The only thing I directly criticise about Christianity and indeed any religion in my talk is that religion is often used as the basis for parents rejecting their LGBT children, something that I say is wrong and that it is terrible that this has in some cases led to young people committing suicide. I’m not sure what is blasphemous or offensive in this message at all.”
Quite. What kind of parent - what manner of Christian - rejects their child for being gay?
“Of course, I understand that for the very religious, it is difficult - an orthodox Jew really does believe the Torah is the literal word of God and a devout Catholic believes the Pope is infallible,” he says. “But do people of faith really want to reject their children for something which I believe they can't help? Just as, the Jewish authorities rejected Christ - for something he considered he couldn't help- being the son of God?”
Before coming to judgment, LISTEN to the talk HERE.
You will hear Mr Cohen talk about the large crucifix on a neighbouring church which overlooks his garden, where he and his (gay) friends often gather. “Having feared such abandonment myself, every time I look up at Christ, I’m happy that both our stories are ultimately about embracing love, rather than fear,” he says.
To dismiss this as 'blasphemy' is to misunderstand christology, abuse theology, and defame the name of Christ.
The christological debate is ongoing, and has been since the ecumenical councils of the second through the fourth centuries. They drew heavily on Greek philosophical concepts; that the mythical images of ‘Son of God’ and ‘incarnation’ were ontologised into absolute and exclusive categories. The socio-political developments from these early centuries greatly influenced christological formulation, and this had a powerful sociological and political cohesive effect. But the uneasy fusion of Greek and Hebrew thought, and the compromised linguistic formulae agreed upon, diminished pluralism by producing a doctrinally uniform Christianity. The consequent subtle shift from 'Son of God' to 'God the Son' was an effective way, within that cultural milieu, of expressing Jesus.
These classical community formulations have endured because they contain truth. There is nothing at all to fear in new christologies which explore individualism and fragmentation. Indeed, a return to a plurality is wholly necessary if Christ is to have meaning in a fractured and fragmented world.