This post is the first of several that will consider a little book written by Daniel A. Helminiak entitled What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality (Tajique, NM: Alamo Press, 2000). Helminiak is a former Catholic priest and scholar who has ministered to gays and studied theology and gay issues for over 30 years. Though only 133 pages long, the book has a lot crammed into it, and I recommend it to any gay Mormon or Christian.
Helminiak grew up in a devout Polish Catholic community in Pittsburgh and entered seminary at age seventeen. He was ordained in Rome, where he earned a Vatican license to teach theology; he later earned a PhD in Systematic Theology at Andover Newton Theological School and Boston College. Helminiak came out in 1976 and served for many years as chaplain to Dignity USA, a LGBT Catholic support network. In the 1980’s, after teaching in a seminary for four years, disillusioned with the institutional church and unable to reconcile his integrity with Vatican expectations, Helminiak enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a PhD in Human Development. He is now a full professor in the humanistic and transpersonal Department of Psychology at the University of West Georgia.
Helminiak begins his book by presenting a short lesson on the history of how the church has dealt with homosexuality. “A millennium ago,” he begins, “Western society was rather indifferent to homosexuality and even supportive of it. A gay subculture thrived. Clerics and nuns wrote love letters and poetry to one another … Students at the newly founded Christian universities regularly debated the pros and cons of straight versus gay love. And no law codes in Europe (except in Visigoth Spain) included prohibitions on homosexual acts.”
By 1200, however, things had changed: “Order and uniformity became the rule of the day,” Helminiak writes, “and volumes and volumes of law codes were promulgated. For the first time in Christian history, Jews and Muslims were persecuted, the poor were regarded as a menace and … ‘heretics’ were put to death. At the same time, homosexuals began to face violent and open opposition. Thus began a millennium of Christian condemnation of homosexuality.”
Fast-forwarding to our time, Helminiak points out that “many of those who are homosexual have been raised to believe in the Bible, and they have been told that it condemns homosexuality … It looks as if homosexual people have to give up their religion or else – which seems impossible – give up their sexuality.”
“That is no small matter,” he continues. “Scientific study, along with psychology, has been underway for barely a century. But it is already clear that sexuality goes to the core of a person. Sexuality means much more than physical arousal and orgasm. Attached to a person’s sexuality is the capacity to feel affection, to delight in someone else, to get emotionally close to another person, to be passionately committed to him or her ... To have to be afraid to feel sexual is to restrain that noblest of human possibilities, love. It is to short-circuit human spontaneity in a whole array of expressions – creativity, motivation, passion, commitment, heroic achievement. It is to be afraid of part of one’s own deepest self.”
Interpreting the Bible
There is no question but that the Bible has things to say about homosexuality. Several passages have been used like gigantic clubs which many “Christians” have used to beat up on homosexuals. Helminiak acknowledges that these passages exist, but challenges the interpretations that are commonly ascribed to these verses.
To preface his comments on these various passages of scripture, Helminiak devotes an entire chapter of his book to describing the two most common approaches to interpretation of the Bible: a literal reading and an historical-critical reading. The literal reading claims to take the text simply for what it says, whereas the other approach aims to discover that the text meant to the people who originally wrote it. In other words, Helminiak explains, “to say what a biblical text teaches us today, you first have to understand the text in its original situation and then apply the meaning to the present situation.”
To illustrate a point that words don’t always mean what they say, he uses the example of the phrase “out in left field.” To someone centuries in the future who runs across this expression in a text, unless that person understood the game of baseball and how the expression came into common usage, he wouldn’t have a clue as to what the term meant in the context in which it was being used.
As an illustration of this principle applied to Biblical texts, Helminiak uses the example of Jesus’ saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. On its face, this statement implies that no rich person can get to heaven, because it is impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. On the other hand, scholars have pointed out that in Jerusalem there was a very low and narrow gate through the city wall called “the eye of the needle.” When a caravan entered through that gate, the camels had to be unloaded, led through the gate crouching down and then reloaded inside the city wall. With this understanding, we can surmise that what Jesus meant by this saying is that the rich might first have to “unload” their material concerns in order to get into heaven.
Helminiak uses the historical-critical approach to interpret what the Bible has to say about homosexuality. I will get into specifics in subsequent posts, but as general statements, Helminiak posits that the modern concept of adult homosexual relationships would not have been familiar to the writers of the Bible. “Specifically,” he points out, “in biblical times there was no elaborated understanding of homosexuality as a sexual orientation … There was only a general awareness of same-sex contacts or same-sex acts.” Therefore, in order to understand what passages of the Bible concerning homosexuality really mean as applied to modern society, one must understand and appreciate what the mindset was of the writers of such passages.
In subsequent posts, I will review what Helminiak had to say about Sodom, about passages in Leviticus dealing with “abominations”, and various passages in the New Testament.