Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has done the sensible thing and rejected the report of its Task Force on Human Sexuality (“Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Social Justice”). But the report continues to merit close examination; one can assume that the ideas behind it will survive the action of the General Assembly.

What most interests me is not the specific recommendations of the report, but the intellectual strategy employed by the Task Force majority to justify its conclusions. The report employs the techniques of postmodernist literary theory. Postmodernism, of course, rejects the idea of absolute or objective truth. Instead of truth, we have only communications in language, or “texts.” Thus the most characteristic postmodernist slogan: “There is nothing outside the text.” In other words, there is no “intention of the author” or true meaning that we can ascertain. In postmodernist jargon, the author is “decentered,” and the reader or interpreter becomes all-important. A text—such as the Bible, or Hamlet, or the United States Constitution—can mean whatever an “interpretive community” wants it to mean. It is no accident that this theory was invented by literary critics (who want to feel as important as the authors they interpret) and eagerly embraced by radical lawyers (who want the Constitution to endorse their political program).

The first step in postmodernist analysis is to establish that the text has no definite meaning. In the case of the Bible, this is done by arguing that some passages are inconsistent with others, that individual passages can be read in various ways, that conditions have changed since biblical times, and so on. It follows that we cannot get guidance out of the Bible itself. The missing meaning must be supplied by the reader/interpreter, who employs a “hermeneutic”—a theory of interpretation that controls the text. The text is then mined for passages that can be interpreted (or twisted) in conformity with the theory. The theory thus cannibalizes the text, and the hermeneutic employs the language of the old faith to justify what may be a new religion altogether.

The report chooses what it calls a justice hermeneutic, but to postmodernists “justice” has no inherent meaning, either. In this context, it is merely a platitudinous term that covers the agenda of Gay Liberation and Radical Feminism (hereafter GLARF). GLARF correctly identifies the Christian understanding of marriage as the real obstacle to its program of sexual liberation. GLARF is not content with toleration; it demands assurance that its practices (same-sex relationships which by definition are outside of marriage) are approved by religious authority. So marriage has to become just one option among many, and “patriarchal marriage” of the kind described in Ephesians 5 must be condemned altogether. In its place, we get an ethic of mutual fulfillment sanctified with high-sounding words like “justice-love.”

But just what is this “justice-love”? Might it in some circumstances include what traditionalists call adultery, for example? The report does recommend values such as responsibility and fidelity to commitments, and insists that relationships must have a quality of “mutuality” and be “non-exploitative.” The language about fidelity and responsibility can be read to imply disapproval of adultery. On the other hand, a person contemplating adultery can read the report to say that formal marriage status is relatively unimportant, and an extramarital relationship can be one of justice-love if it involves mutual loving fulfillment. In other words, adultery becomes easy to rationalize if that is what one wants to do. And that is what potential adulterers very much do want to do.

It would be extremely naive to put an innocent construction on any of the ambiguous language in the report. The central intellectual premise of postmodernist philosophy is that “ambiguous language” is a redundancy, because language never has an absolute meaning. The reader controls the interpretation. Just as the language of the Bible yields to a justice hermeneutic, and “justice” means GLARF the language of the report itself is subject to hermeneutical interpretation. The adulterer and the pederast will interpret the text according to a hermeneutic of self-justification, and their interpretation will be as valid as any other.

Postmodernist philosophy is inherently nihilistic and atheistic. Readers should not be misled by the presence of God-talk in the report. To a postmodernist, theological language also has no definite meaning, and probably refers only to subjective states of mind. “God” as the author of our being would be something outside the text. Such things cannot be, because language is all we have. If language is all we have, and its meaning is controlled by a hermeneutic chosen by a political faction, then that faction becomes in effect the author of Scripture. “A justice hermeneutics,” the report says, “focuses on the Jesus story and assumes that whatever communicates genuine love and caring justice bears authority for Christians.” Translation: “Jesus means justice-love, which means GLARF.” What else could Jesus mean? Anything else would be patriarchal and heterosexist. Of course, it is only a “Jesus story” that we are interpreting. A real Jesus would be something outside the text.

Phillip E. Johnson is a Presbyterian layman and Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley.