[note: as a matter of disclosure, my denomination, the United Methodist Church, does not yet agree with my position on this issue, so don't blame them if you don't like what I have to say.]
What a queer age when live in, when the greatest source of tension and division in the church universal involves sexual orientation. This is a debate that I have long shied away from because I thought that no good could come of it. Every church that ever employed me for any ministerial role wanted, at one point or another, for me to weigh in on the topic of homosexuality. It has become a perverse informal litmus test.
When, as a minister, I was asked what I thought about homosexuality, I always replied with something like this:
"When I have a church full of gay people I'll speak about homosexual ethics. Since this church claims that it has only heterosexuals, here I'll speak about heterosexual ethics."
Gay people have long been scapegoated because of mainstream society's confusion about sex. This is particularly true in the religious sector. Christians in America are every bit as likely as the rest of the population to become addicted to pornography, engage in extra-marital sex, and get divorced. The church, it seems, has little impact (at least statistically) on sexual behavior.
The divorce rate in America is now over 50%, indicating that heterosexual marriage is in a state of crisis. This crisis involves, of course, the unrealistic expectations which we all bring to relationships, as well as our general inability to communicate in healthy ways. But this crisis also has a sexual component. People are having sex outside of marriage (by which I mean prior to marriage; during marriage, but with someone other that their spouse; and after divorce) at higher and higher rates. This fact clashes with our traditional sexual ethic, and creates the impression of a moral collapse.
In the midst of this sexual confusion and chaos, as morals shift and marriages dissolve, Christians have had to do a great deal of soul searching regarding sex and marriage. Alas, rather than embracing our own sinful nature and taking responsibility for our role in this crisis, we too often have sought to pin the blame for the marital difficulties on gays.
There is, in our country at the moment, an all out culture war. This war is fought over many different symbolic issues, such as abortion, public religious displays, and homosexuality. These issues, while somewhat important in their own right, are much more important for what they represent to those fighting the good fight in the culture war. They represent a battle for America's soul.
There has recently been a great debate in the comments section of a previous post. While the original post made no mention of homosexuality, the debate at that post has inevitably turned to homosexuality. This is a debate that I do not wish to have, because it is such a great source of division in the church, and such a minor issue in its own right. While the U.S. is involved in an unjust war in Iraq and an endless war against an ideology at home, I'm sure that we can come up with more important moral issues that who is allowed to have sex with whom.
That said, I will be silent on this subject no longer. In the culture war, the battle over homosexuality is being fought on two fronts:
1. The civic, or secular front
2. The religious (particularly Christian) front
On the civic front the debate centers on the issue of marriage. In the last election cycle a number of states, including my home of Kentucky, considered constitutional amendments banning "gay marriage" by defining marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. These constitutional amendments were considered necessary because of the very real fear that mere laws passed against gay marriage would be overturned as unconstitutional.
These constitutional amendments had various motivations. One very real motivation was simple power politics. This is, of course, always the case when elections are involved. Conservative politicians (particularly national Republican figures) fan the flames of the culture war in order to rally their base to vote. If one of the major issues being discussed nationally and locally is a so-called "moral" issue on which almost all conservatives agree, and if this issue is seen as part of a larger war for the soul of America, then it is easy for morally conservative voters to overlook other, more messy issues such as the state of the economy and the war in Iraq.
Another motivation was the prevailing cultural confusion about sex, and the decline of traditional marriages. Gay marriage was seen, in this time of marital crisis, as yet another threat to traditional marriage. Of course this is a nonsense argument. I am a married heterosexual. My wife and I have had some problems in our marriage. We struggle to communicate to each other openly and honestly, without passing judgment. We struggle to listen to each other attentively. We struggle to truly understand and cater to each other's emotional needs. We struggle with how best to deal with our financial issues. I would say that, by and large, we have a very good marriage, but there have been times when I have understood why some people find it easier to get divorced. One thing which has never affected the health of our marriage, however, is the idea that some day gay people might actually be able to get married too.
One of the most popular civic/secular arguments against homosexuality and gay marriage is that if homosexual relationships are legitimized, and gays are allowed to get married, then that would set a kind of perverse precedent for extending legitimacy to all kinds of relationships which we wouldn't want to legitimize. If a man can marry a man, and a woman can marry a woman, what is to prevent a man or woman from marrying a horse or a dog? If homosexuality is legitimized, why shouldn't we also legitimize bestiality, polygamy, and child molestation?
In logic this kind of argument is called a slippery slope fallacy. A fallacy, of course, is a fancy word for a very bad argument which, unfortunately, many people fall for. This particular fallacy works by convincing people that if we give on one point we have to give on every subsequent point. And, while this particular point might be worth conceding on its own merits, the other "hidden" points are not worth conceding. So, by virtue of those things that we aren't arguing for yet we cannot concede this seemingly harmless point.
There is no reason at all to suggest that legitimizing homosexuality somehow paves the way for bestiality and other sorts of abnormal or deviant sexual acts to be legitimized as well. Legitimizing homosexuality simply recognizes homosexual relationships as legitimate relationships. Morally and logically speaking, homosexuality is a subject which should be judged on its own rather than weighed down with appeals to completely irrelevant lifestyles. Homosexuals have no more desire to have sex with children or barnyard animals than heterosexuals.
But the real battle over homosexuality is, as best as I can tell, not being fought in the secular world. The real battle over homosexuality, while it has many civic ramifications, is being fought in the religious world. The real battle over homosexuality is being fought in congregations and denominations across America.
One of the few positive aspects of the culture war is that it has conservative Protestants and Catholics, two groups long divided with little hope of reconciliation, uniting with a common mission. Conservative Catholics, like their evangelical and fundamentalist brethren, oppose abortion, homosexuality, secularism, and a whole host of other so-called “liberal” developments.
But, while conservative Catholics and Protestants share many of the same positions on these social issues, they often arrive at their positions in different ways and for different reasons.
Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE) still stands as perhaps the most dominant and formative theologian of the Catholic tradition, if not all of Christianity. His Confessions is a unique work. It is considered the first autobiography of the Western tradition, but it is at least as much philosophy and theology as it is personal narrative. It is the story of how he came to understand his relationship with God, and how his nature is inexorably tied to the nature of the divine.
It is often taught in college philosophy classes that Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 CE) are the bookends of Medieval philosophy, with Augustine at the beginning of the period and Aquinas at the end. It is also taught that while they are the two largest figures in Catholic theology, to a certain extent they are opposites. Augustine is seen as a neo-Platonist because of the way in which he Christianized the philosophy of Plato (428 – 348 BCE), while Aquinas is credited with helping to reclaim the philosophy of Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) after it had been lost in the West.
But Augustine predates the loss of Aristotle’s writing, and he was certainly aware of it and influenced by it. In fact, his approach to human sinfulness is Aristotelian through and through.
Aristotle defined “natural” in a way that would be foreign to modern naturalists. For Aristotle, that which is natural is that which is the best possible end of a thing. This is particularly true in the realm of ethics. In Book I of his Nichomachean Ethics, for instance, Aristotle states that because “every action and choice seem to aim at some good; the good, therefore, has been well defined as that at which all things aim.”
It is natural that actions lead to a natural good, and to the extent which an action aims for the end which is natural to it, that action is a good action. Augustine operated with this understanding of good, thus, for Augustine every action had to aim at a good. Humans demonstrate their inherent sinfulness when they engage in actions which do not aim at the proper good of those actions.
This is particularly apparent in Augustine’s position on sex, and it is that position which shapes the Catholic dogma as it pertains to sex. The natural end, and therefore the good and proper end, of sex is procreation. Sex is a procreative act. Therefore, any sexual act which does not aim to conceive a child is a sinful act. Sexual acts between members of the same sex, according to this view, must by nature always be sinful, because they cannot aim at conceiving a child.
It is for this reason, for instance, that the Roman Catholic Church still opposes any means of birth control. This opposition is purely a token opposition, as Catholics in America are every bit as likely as non-Catholics of taking advantage of our culture’s ability to control the birth rate. But at least the appearance of opposition must be maintained by a dogmatic hierarchy which sees any concession to the modern secular world as a dilution of the true theology of the church.
It would surprise people to learn, then, that the Catholic Church has not always opposed homosexuality. While Catholic theology is rigidly dogmatic, in Catholicism as in all other religious traditions there is a wide chasm between official teachings and actual practice. This chasm was particularly wide in the Medieval period.
Catholicism has not always insisted on a celibate clergy. In fact, Catholicism today does not insist on a celibate clergy, as a married Episcopal priest can convert to Catholicism and become a Catholic priest without giving up his wife. Celibacy has not always been normative for the Roman Catholic clergy. Celibacy was first imposed upon that clergy not because of any theological argument (though of course theological arguments were made to advance the policy) but because of the realities of secular property transfer laws in Medieval Europe. These laws required that all property be given to the first born son at the time of the father’s death. This meant, in effect, that when a priest died, if that priest had sired a son, then that son would get all of the church property. Celibacy was imposed on the clergy, then, as a way of keeping church property in the church.
In this climate, as you can imagine, priests with homosexual tendencies, far from being ostracized by the church hierarchy, were actually quite popular politically. This is, of course, because when they acted on their sexual desires there was no chance that the church could lose its property because of it.
Since celibacy has been imposed on the Roman Catholic clergy many gay men, culturally conditioned to be ashamed of their homosexuality, have sought refuge in the priesthood. Now, after a host of lawsuits over the way in which the Catholic Church has handled the sexual abuse of its children by priests, the Catholic approach to its gay clergy is changing. This is a real shame, in part because Catholics have naturally limited their clergy by excluding women and imposing celibacy, and in part because, as argued earlier, homosexuals (as a group) have no more desire to have sex with children than heterosexuals. The Catholic Church has brought this priest sex scandal on itself not by welcoming celibate gays into its priesthood but by not allowing clergy members to find healthy outlets for their sexual energies and by not giving applicants to the priesthood proper psychological examinations.
The Catholic argument against homosexuality, an argument from an Aristotelian understanding of nature, says that homosexual acts are unnatural sexual acts, and are therefore morally wrong. This is an argument which depends on the understanding of sexual morality that early church figures such as Augustine had. Yet these figures, particularly Augustine, had an understanding of sex which is no longer held today. As such this argument is usually dismissed, like so much other pieces of traditional Catholic dogma, as being outdated.
C.S. Lewis used to say that you don’t measure arguments with a watch. This was his humorous way of saying that if the best you can do is dismiss an argument with an appeal to time then you’d better go back to the drawing board. But there is a reason why, through the years, our attitude about sex has changed. In Augustine’s time the church, under the influence of the neo-Platonism prevalent in the Roman Empire, made a firm division between the fleshly and the spiritual. The fleshly was considered, if not out and out evil, at the very least less good. It was the spiritual which was godly, and therefore good, with the potential to be perfect.
Neo-Platonism held that the soul was the true good of a person, and that the corruptible body held that soul in this evil realm. At death the soul escaped the body, and was reunited with the good. As this view carried over into Christianity the church lost its Jewish roots, and in doing so lost touch with the value of the body.
Sex was seen as a fleshly act, and as such an evil act which could only be justified by some appeal to a greater good. Procreation was the greater good which, under extremely limited circumstances, made sex permissible.
We have now recaptured an understanding of the value of bodies. Bodies are beautiful again. As such to say that sex is fleshly is not necessarily to say that sex is evil. Certainly it is powerful, and not to be taken lightly. But one no longer needs to appeal to some greater good to justify their natural sexual appetite. This does not mean that all sexual desires or acts are morally permissible, but neither does it mean that any sex act which does not aim at procreation is evil.
We would never think of saying to a barren woman or a sterile man that they can never engage in any form of acceptable sex because they are not naturally equipped for procreation. As such we can no longer say that homosexual sex acts are necessarily evil because they cannot produce children.
Homosexuality, as we have seen, has been decried as “unnatural.” Yet, per the way that we now understand the term, homosexuality is very natural. It is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and there is overwhelming evidence to indicate that this is because sexual orientation is genetically determined. Roughly 10% of the world’s human population is homosexual, and this percentage has been static for as long as we have been able to measure it. Same sex sexual relations occur naturally in every sexually reproducing species, again strongly indicating that sexual orientation is genetically determined.
On the basis of nature, then, there is no reason to condemn homosexuality, or even to treat sexual orientation as a moral issue. As it is natural, and genetically determined, it has (on the grounds of nature, at least) no more moral value than preferences in food.
During the Reformation Protestants broke with the Roman Catholic Church over a number of issues. There was great corruption in the Catholic Church at that time, which created an environment favorable to the Reformation. But there were also some very real, as of yet very irreconcilable, theological differences.
Catholicism views the church as the mediator between God and humanity. The church stands between humans and God, interpreting the acts of God for humans, and reconciling sinful humans to the holy God. Because of its role as mediator the Catholic Church enjoyed a great deal of power over the day to day affairs of its members. The Catholic Church taught that you had to be in the good graces of the church to be in the good graces of God. Anyone whom the church forgives and absolves of their sins is forgiven by God and accepted into heaven. Anyone, however, whom the church does not forgive is not forgiven by God, and is eternally damned.
The Catholic Church also (and perhaps quite rightly, given the chaos which has followed the Protestant Reformation) had a dim view of the ability of the laity to interpret scripture for themselves. As such, only priests had access to the Bible, and had sole authority to interpret the contents of the Bible. The Bible was interpreted in light of official church teachings, and church tradition was held to be equal in authority to the Biblical record.
Protestants rejected these teachings. The argued that Christ alone, and not the church, is the mediator between God and humanity. They argued that faith alone, and not the indulgences of the church, is the way to salvation. And they argued that the Bible alone, and not the traditions of the church, has authority over the faithful.
As such when conservative Protestants oppose homosexuality they do so not, in their minds, because the church as an institution has declared homosexuality to be sinful, nor because of the theological arguments of dominant church figures such as Augustine and Aquinas; but rather because they see scripture condemning homosexuality. Conservative Protestants argue that the Bible universally condemns homosexuality, and so accepting homosexual relationships as legitimate is a denial of Biblical authority.
One of the great struggles of the Reformation was to give all people access to the Holy Scriptures. The early Reformers felt that if everyone could read the Bible, and read it in their own language, then all of the conflict that they saw in the church universal would be ended. This is because they felt that if everyone had the access to the Bible and if everyone agreed that the Bible was the sole authority; then they would all agree about what the Bible says and accept it in their lives. They saw the fundamental conflict of their day, between Protestants and Catholics, as being a conflict between corrupt church tradition and the uniform voice of scripture. It never occurred to them that reasonable people would disagree about what the Bible says, or what we mean by Biblical authority.
Part of this struggle to give the laity access to the Bible involved a great act of translation and canonical reformation. The Bible of the Catholic Church was the Latin Vulgate translation, arranged in part in accordance with the Septuagint, a Greek language version of the Hebrew Bible which also contained Jewish works originally written in Greek. Reformers like John Calvin sought to return to what he called the “Hebrew truth,” recapturing the original Hebrew text (as far as it was possible) and then translating that text into the vernacular languages of the cultures who would read it.
This work was, of course, very difficult, and many problems arose out of it. For the first time in more than a thousand years there was mainstream debate about which books were authentic, and how best to understand them. Also, for the first time since Jerome penned the Vulgate text, there were disagreements about the wording of passages. Those disagreements, despite protests to the contrary, exist to this day.
Fundamentalists and some other conservatives treat the Bible as though it were a single work. But, of course, one look at even the table of contents of any translation of the Bible will teach you that the Bible is a series of books, written over a vast expanse of time. The Bible is not a systematic work, as the authors and compilers of each book were not aware of many of the other books, which in many cases had not yet been written when they were doing their work. Books which were composed at roughly the same time were in some cases unaware of each other. So treating the Bible like you would a regular book, written by a single author on a single topic, is a dangerous thing.
There is no uniform scriptural witness, though many theologians have rightly tried to piece together a sweeping Biblical narrative from which to build systems of belief. Rather, when we are dealing with the Bible we are dealing with many separate books which often overlap but sometimes contradict. We are, when we are dealing with the Bible, dealing with a series of ever changing ideas about the nature of God and how it is that humans relate to the divine. I say this not to detract from the authority of scripture, but rather to explain how it is that we can understand how to read scripture and understand it.
There are, in the entirety of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, only two places (by which I do not mean verses, as each of these places contains a number of verses, each of which is often quoted separately by conservatives as a way of out “proof-texting” their opponents) where anything resembling what we call homosexuality is attacked. From these two places conservatives attempt to build their attack on homosexuality.
The first place where homosexuality is apparently condemned is found in the Holiness Code of ancient Israel. I know that many people will say to this, “Wait a second! What about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis?” Genesis 19:1-11 describes the sin committed by the men of Sodom, which is often understood to be homosexuality. It is from this passage that we get the word “sodomy.” Yet sodomy, ironically, does not describe the sin of Sodom. Sodom was not condemned for homosexuality. Sure, the men of Sodom tried to take two of Lot’s male guests for sex acts, but their intention was certainly not to be sexual partners with them. “Partners” implies a kind of equality, like what is seen in good, loving, sexual relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual. The intention of the men of Sodom was gang rape.
And, alas, it was not the gang rape which was condemned. After all, Lot offered to allow the mob to gang rape his daughters and is still considered righteous. No, the people of Sodom are condemned for their failure to observe the laws of hospitality of the Middle East. Because the men (or angels in the guise of men, though it is unclear what is meant by "angel" here) were Lot’s guests, they were also guests of the community. As such they fell under both the protection of Lot and the protection of all of Sodom. The men of Sodom, in their attempt to kidnap and ritually gang rape Lot’s guests, failed to live up to the divine law concerning how you treat guests. There is absolutely nothing in this story to indicate how we should view homosexuality. Of course, even if there were something about homosexuality in this story, would we want to learn sexual ethics from a story which allows its hero to offer up his daughters to a mob bent on gang rape?
The most overt apparent condemnations of homosexuality in the Hebrew Bible are found in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, and it is from these verses that the Biblical attack on homosexuality is usually waged. Only two verses in this enormous set of laws which govern all sorts of behavior have to do with sexual relations between members of the same sex. Leviticus 18:22 says (all Biblical quotations here are from the NRSV) “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Leviticus 20:13 says “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.”
It is first important to note that neither of these verses says anything about lesbians. This is because the authors of scripture could not, from their patriarchal bias, imagine sex without men. All sex acts, in their minds, were initiated by men, and had only men as the active participants. These passages simply have nothing to say about lesbianism.
The subject of what the Bible says about human sexuality may have been best handled by the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, in his book Living in Sin?. Chapter Nine of that book, titled “The Bible and Homosexuality”, specifically handles Biblical passages which seem to condemn homosexuality. In it, he writes
“Abomination,” the word Leviticus uses to describe homosexuality, is a strong word and carries a sense of repulsive evil. It is noteworthy that the priestly writers use that same word to describe a menstruating woman. There is no question but that in many ancient traditions, including those described in the Bible, there is a deep fear of menstruation. Legends and superstitions reflected that fear circulated freely. Cleansing rituals were required before the banished woman was allowed back into the life of the tribe. She was unclean and presumed a threat to male virility and to the health and well-being of the male sex organs. If a man had sexual relations with a menstruating woman, both were to be cut off from the people.
Of course, we no longer have this fear of menstruation, because now we understand it and its role in the reproductive process. It is not unhealthy, nor is it a sign of uncleanliness. Rather, it is a perfectly natural phenomenon.
We have also come to understand homosexuality as a natural phenomenon, but the pre-modern prejudice against it continues. As such, while no one would, on scriptural grounds, condemn a man for having sexual relations with his wife while she is on her period (despite the "scriptural witness” of Lev. 20:18) homosexuals are condemned.
Conservatives always lampoon liberals for “picking and choosing” which verses to “believe” as though they did not do the same things themselves. Yet, while they cite Leviticus to condemn gays, they do not condemn the blind or the lame, hunchbacks of dwarves, or those with severe acne or “crushed” testicles, even though the same set of laws which they use to condemn homosexuality declares each of those groups unclean.
It is impossible to take an ancient moral or legal code, such as the one in Leviticus, and impose it completely on a modern society. We would not want ancient medicine because we have made so many advances since then. Similarly we have come to understand human behavior so much more than the priestly writers of Leviticus could ever have imagined. Their laws, as they pertain to many forms of behavior, are no longer acceptable in any society, even a conservative Christian one. Why is it that homosexuality is the one holdover?
The Gospels are silent on the issue of homosexuality, indicating that Jesus, despite the opinions of his modern day followers, did not consider it a very big deal. There are, however, a few passages from the letters of the apostle Paul which seem to condemn homosexuality.
Romans 1: 26-27 says, “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with the women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
This passage, like so many others, must be read in its context. Paul’s intention in this section from his letter to the church in Rome was not to condemn homosexuality, though he certainly didn’t think it was a good thing. He was in this letter building an argument for expanding Christianity beyond its Jewish roots to include all kinds of people. Of this Spong says
His [Paul’s] argument was that in the worship of idols instead of the creator the worshipping creature became distorted. Truth was exchanged for a lie, and natural relations were confused with unnatural. Homosexual activity was regarded by Paul as punishment visited upon idolaters by God because of their unfaithfulness.
Here, then, homosexuality is not the sin, but the punishment for the sin of idolatry. Paul sees it as punishment because to him it is as “unnatural” as idolatry. Of course, as we have come to understand homosexuality as a natural phenomenon we can no longer hold that it is sinful on the grounds that it is unnatural.
Also, some scholars argue that the Greek word translated “unnatural” is better translated “atypical,” and has no ethical implication.
The only other passages from Paul, and as such the only other passages in the Bible, which appear to deal with homosexuality are found in I Corinthians 6:9 (in a list of types of people who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven) and I Timothy 1:10. In both cases the best translation of the word which is often translated as something like “homosexuals” is unclear. There is, however, no reason other than prejudice to believe that the obscure Greek word in question amounts to a Biblical condemnation of all homosexuals, or even homosexual acts.
The Biblical case against homosexuality, then, is anything but a slam dunk. It rests on a literal reading of scripture and a refusal to read verses of scripture in their historical, cultural and textual context. That these verses are used to exclude people from the grace of God is another example of how religious authorities are always trying to come between God and the people of God.
We live in an age of sexual confusion, and that confusion has rightly caught the attention of social and religious conservatives, prompting them to action. But their intolerant actions are destructive at a time in which we need constructive action. In condemning homosexuals as sinners, and in condemning their defenders as heretics, conservatives are not modeling the example of the Christ who refused to condemn anyone except for those religious authorities who stood between God and the people of God, and self-righteous hypocrites.
To address the sexual confusion so prevalent in our society we need to not return to the prejudices of the past, but rather to build up a comprehensive understanding of human sexuality and sexual ethics in light of both our ancient faith and modern science.
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