Thursday, March 15, 2007

Al Mohler on Genetic Treatments for Homosexuality

For those of you who don't know of him, Al Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. In some Baptist circles he is almost venerated, in others, well... not so much.

My step-grandfather, Wendell Garrison, is the former president of the Illinois Baptist State Association and served on the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee from 1976-1984. He has long been a leading moderate voice among Southern Baptists, and is perhaps the most respected Southern Baptist pastor in Illinois. He is also no fan of Al Mohler, seeing him as more of a politician than a pastor, and more of a polemical bully than a scholar. In his mind, Mohler represents everything that has gone wrong with the Southern Baptist convention.

Living in Louisville, however, I didn't need my step-grandfather's growing frustration to poison me to Al Mohler. I just need my own eyes and ears. Mohler's often-inflammatory rhetoric, rhetoric that paints his opponents as little anti-Christs seeking to ruin "Biblical" Christianity, is enough to make any fair-minded Christian sick to their stomach. Worse, too many of his disciples treat him as a quasi-God, a semi-divine being whose utterances are as close to the Word of God as humans ever get. I've seen too many star-struck students fawning all over him not to wonder what it is, exactly, that they serve in the seminary's cafeteria.

This year around Christmas I had the exquisite pleasure to spend a few days with my grandparents in their home in Swansea, Illinois, just on the Illinois side of St. Louis. Wendell and I spent long hours talking theology and church politics before we finally, and quite nervously, broached the divisive subject of homosexuality. While my views on the subject have changed a great deal over the past few years, as I've moved from a fundamentalist/literalist position to my current theology, I was never quite sure how to talk to my step-grandfather. After all, not only is he a fairly old man now - which in my mind has always unconsciously (and wrongly!) been associated with conservativism - he is also a retired Southern Baptist pastor. In all my life I'd never met a Southern Baptist who publicly professed anything other than that homosexuality is a vile sin, condemned unequivocally by the very Word of God.

Wendell eased into the subject by talking about how much Southern Baptists have changed during his lifetime.

We've always had a strong concept of the separation of Church and State, he told me, but now that we're starting to taste some political power we're selling out our most treasured ideals.

He moved from that to the subject of Biblical literalism, saying that Southern Baptists today have wedded themselves to a thoroughly modern reading of the Bible, a reading that he thinks is unsupported by the text itself. On the subject of inerrancy, he said,

Tell where the Bible itself says that it is inerrant! It isn't there. You can't say that the Bible is your primary religious authority, and say that the Bible is inerrant, because the Bible itself makes no such claim. And I don't feel like making claims about the Bible for the Bible. If it doesn't think that it is inerrant, I see no reason to impose that view on it.

Then we finally got where he was trying to take us. I think that he had guessed my evolving views on human sexuality before the conversation even started. He had, after all, helped talk me through my crisis in faith after I'd left pastoral ministry. He knew that, in the current climate in evangelical denominations, there was a deeper reason why I was allowing a bad situation at a single church to keep me from further pursuing my pastoral career. So he asked me bluntly:

What do you think about homosexuality?

I gave some half-hearted cowardly answer, not wanting to risk discussing such a divisive issue with a family member. He patiently listened to me stammer, before he replied,

I remember thinking about it as a young man. It occurred to me then that I hadn't chosen my sexual orientation, so it seemed unlikely to me that gays would have chosen theirs, either. And, if they haven't chosen to be the way that they are, then God must have made them that way. How, then, could it be sinful?

Al Mohler, it seems, has finally come around to seeing at least the first half of my step-grandfather's point. BluegrassReport.org, a progressive blog on Kentucky politics, in a scathing editorial pointed me to a post on Al Mohler's blog. In it he all but concedes that the phenomenon of same sex attraction is genetic rather than volitional.

However, rather than take the next step, and argue that because homosexual inclinations are not volitional they - and at least some of the behaviors that arise out of them - must not be sinful, he clings to his "Biblical" view that all homosexual acts are sinful, and must be roundly condemned. This places him in a difficult position, though there is no evidence in his post that he grasps the difficulty of his position. In this difficult position he advocates the use of genetic treatments to eliminate homosexual tendencies.

As Mark Nicholas points out in the BluegrassReport.org piece, that position is a difficult one for someone who has in the past roundly condemned kinds of genetic therapy for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other diseases. While I acknowledge that, from Mohler's point of view, there may be a difference between stem-cell therapy and the kind of genetic treatment that he thinks might be possible for homosexuality, taking his positions together I am forced to wonder if he really thinks that being gay is a more serious "disease" than any of the actual diseases that could be treated by stem-cell therapy.

This viewing of human sexuality as so seriously pathological that it demands an invasive intervention that fundamentally alters one's genetic make-up strikes me as more than a little disturbed. I highly encourage you to read Mohler's post for yourself, and to read it as charitably as possible. Especially look at his ten points at the end, which include, after some preliminary theological concerns, statements like:

If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin.

and

We must stop confusing the issues of moral responsibility and moral choice. We are all responsible for our sexual orientation, but that does not mean that we freely and consciously choose that orientation.

What do you make of this view?

13 comments:

Tom said...

I think we should isolate the asshole gene and try to find a cure.

Anonymous said...

I've seen this attitude growing among my conservative evangelical acquaintances, especially the younger ones. They are more likely to accept biological factors shape sexual orientation, but they also agree with Mohler in blaming the Fall for homosexuality. I also think greater skepticism has developed for conversion therapy. They might recommend attempting to develop feelings for the opposite sex, but more are expressing encouragement for lifelong celibacy.

On a different note, at least Mohler is listening to biologists and attempting to integrate reality into his theology. Now if only he could work on his young earth creationist beliefs.

Sandalstraps said...

Tom,

I'm afraid that if there ever where a genetic cure for the asshole gene, both you and I would have our makeup rather dramatically altered!

Anonymous,

I suppose there is a bright side of everything!

Seriously, though, you are right to note that he is at least in a very limited way attempting to bring the observations of science into his theology, which I suppose ain't nothin'.

And it fits an Augustinian framework to claim that the Fall can fundamentally alter natural structures - this is how Augustine accounts for both disease and natural disasters. It would take someone like Al Mohler, though, to apply it to sexual orientation.

Thank you for your comment. If you come back, and are able, please try to in some way identify yourself, so that I may calll you something other than Anonymous - a rather awkward if occasionallly necessary designation.

PamBG said...

I think we should isolate the asshole gene and try to find a cure.

ROTFL!!!

Chris, your step-grandfather sounds like a wise man.

I've always thought that the nature / nurture debate was fruitless with respect to this issue. You can always take the view of "fix them medically" if you believe in "nature" or "fix them mentally" if you believe in "nurture".

Brian Beech said...

Funny how everyone has decided that homosexuality is a genetic thing... I'm not saying that people are or aren't born that way, but everyone seems to accept that its genetic. Evidence?! Or speculation?

If you thought homosexuality was wrong, couldn't you attribute it to the Fall? If you believed it was wrong, you would think it was sin. A sin nature being a consequence of the Fall would be logical.

As far as the bible not claiming inerrancy, that's the way I read 2 Timothy chapter 3. I suppose this is 'interpreted' differently?

Sandalstraps said...

Brian Beech,

Once again, thank you for commenting. It takes some courage to be a dissenting voice. It takes even more courage to be a dissenting voice with a moderate tone - that is, saying things they way that you say them, with patience and humility, bearing with us through our errors, rather than issueing blanket and angry condemnations.

To deal with the substance of your comment:

To your first point, yes, it is absolutely possible for someone to reasonably attribute it to the Fall. In fact, as noted here earlier, such an approach is entirely consistant with Augustine's view of the consequences of the Fall, a view which still to a large degree dominates Christian understandings of the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Genesis.

What Mohler is taking heat for, however, is his proposal that we fight the genetic effects of the Fall with genetic (and even and especially prenatal) therapy. He is encouraging screening for particular genetic traits before a child is born, and then genetically altering that child to produce a more ideal child.

This approach to almost anything has been roudly condemned by medical ethicist - especially Christian ethicists. And, I think, for good reason. It seems far too much like altering fundamental human nature - which I hope we still see as a product of the divine will - to produce a more ideal person. In other words, it is a human attempt to improve on God's design - a very dangerous undertaking.

There are other reasons why non-Christians would be opposed to such a plan, but as you do not share their presuppositions, their conclusions are not binding to you. From our perspective as Christians, this is what I think is at stake.

As for scriptural inerrancy, yes, that verse (2 Timothy 3:16) has been cited as a kind of proof text for the idea. But, there are a few things that we need to keep in mind as we read that verse:

1. And this is especially important if we value a "plain-reading" of the text (which I know you do):

Here are some of the most commmon English translations of the verse (wit the most operative descriptions of scripture in bold:

NIV: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness..."

NRSV: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness..."

KJV: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness..."

NAS: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness..."

You, of course, see the trend. God is somehow behind the text, though God's involvment is not exactly spelled out (and, I might argue, for good reason), and God's involvment establishes the usefulness, the functionality, of the scriptural text for the various purposes laid out by Paul.

The only way to see inerrancy in this verse is to read inerrancy into the text, and in so doing spell out what Paul is intentionally leaving vague. Many of done this, that is true. But many others have not. My point, and especially my step-grandfather's point (him being much more theologically conservative than me) is that the text itself does not lead any faithful reader of the text to a full concept of scriptural inerrancy, as the text is solely concerned with the ways in which scripture can be used.

2. This is a less important point for those who see the Biblical text as a cohesive whole, but is a vital point to me, who likes to look at verses in context:

Paul himself seems to have no concept of wrting scripture here, and would no doubt not see his claim - whatever it means - concerning the nature of scripture, to apply to his own work. When Paul writes of scripture, he writes especially of the Torah, and secondarily of the prophets and some Jewish wisdom literature. The Gospels have not yet been recorded, and none of Paul's letters have yet been adopted as scripture. So his claim, if we take it as he intended it, applys only to a section of what we today consider to be scripture - and not the section that contains this verse.

I admit that to someone who sees Paul as being somehow taken over by the Spirit of God, writing a verbally inspired work that speaks to issues that the mere mortal Paul never could have understood, to note that Paul's concept of what counts as scripture

a.) is different than ours, and

b.) doesn't include his own work

might seem like a trivial claim. But I bring it up anyway, as a way of noting that it is quite easy to be faithful to the text itself and see no claim here concerning inerrancy, and that it is in fact quite harder to be faithful to the text - that is, to read only what the text says, without bringing any theological presuppositions of inerrancy or verbal inspiration to the text - and see in this a claim concerning all of what we consider to be scripture, and a claim that any of what we consider to be scripture is without error of any kind.

It is not a plain reading of the text that leads people to a conclusion of inerrancy, but rather a theological framework that a priori assumes inerrancy, that then sees in words like inspired and useful a claim for inerrancy.

JP Manzi said...

Chris, great post and much to chew on here. Thanks for sharing the conversation you had with your step-grandfather.

mrieder said...

Hi Sandalstraps,

A good post and very close to my heart as I have been thinking over the proper Christian response to homosexuality recently.

I am rather puzzled by the reasoning behind your post. You seem to start from the assumption that if something is genetically determined, it must be morally good. Is this correct or have I mistaken you?

Certainly I do not have to give examples of behaviors that have genetic basis to show that genetic predisposition is a poor basis for a system of morality. The fact of the matter is that some people are genetically predisposed to do things which are wrong by any moral estimate. This shows that morality can not be determined based on impulses which are rooted in genotype.

I think that a more effective argument for the moral acceptability of homosexuality would be to show that it is good for humanity. This brings up another question. Can both homosexuality and heterosexuality be morally right? On what baisis?

It seems to me that heterosexuality has a genetic basis far more than homosexuality has a genetic basis. There are vast differences between men and women at the genetic level. The most rudimentary observations show that men were designed to be sexually involved with women and vice-versa.

Based on biology alone, homosexuality is completely aberrant and also a poor environmental adaptation. I actually think that if one adheres to a naturalistic sort of philosophy, homosexuality is harder to logically support as nature seems to show that it is preferable that male individuals mate with female individuals.

What do you think?

Also, if we got rid of the asshole gene, then we would all die from bowel impaction! :)

Cheers,

Matt

mrieder said...

One more comment,

I think that "inerrancy" is something that is necessary to certain religious systems to deal with certain theological quandaries. For example, the explanation of natural and moral evil becomes much more difficult if one does not take a literal reading of the fall of man account. Of course, the fundamentalist reading of the Bible raises other difficulties!

Matt

Sandalstraps said...

JP,

Thanks for your comment.

Matt,

The subject of the moral value of homosexuality has been addressed at several other places on this blog - I trust that you can find them on the sidebar.

I'd be very eager to have a conversation with you on the subject, and so here I'll try briefly to provide you with some of my conclusions. For my reasoning, you are more than welcome to consult othher posts, or to continue to ask questions. As far as the format/location of such a conversation, however, I have some doubts as to the suitability of the comments section of a blog. I have these doubts for a couple of reasons.

First, in such a public conversation some people do not feel entirely free or safe to say exactlly what they mean. I see that, at least in respect to your most recent comments, you are at least less inhibited in this way than most. But, given that this conversation is a public one, and that anyone can enter into it (and many enter in with less than charitable motives) I want to at least air that concern.

Secondly, a conversation held in the comments section of a blog post can be a less responsive conversation than some other forms of conversation. Here we often wax poetic for paragraphs at a time, giving our conversation partner(s) large chunks of arguments to process. My experience is that often there may be very minor differences on a few small points within a large sea of words, and that those differences - which can often lead to some misinterpretations - go unnoticed, unstated, or unclarified.

That said, for the moment I am happy to provide you with some of my thoughts on the subject, while also issuing you a blanket invitation to consider a more private and responsive mode of conversing, if you so desire. For me the most fruitful conversations are held in person, though that is rarely possible. The next most fruitful are private emails, which - by being private - prevent parties not directly involved in the conversation from disrupting it. I don't have that problem too much anymore, as most "trolls" don't bother to visit me any longer, thank God! But I suspect you see the nature of the problem I am alluding to.

In any event, for me the first consideration is this:

The gender of the parties involved in any sexual act/relationship does not by itself determine the moral value of said sexual act/relationship. This is something that I suspect we all, no matter our views on the phenomenon of same-sex attraction, agree on. It is certainly the case, for instance, that just because a sexual act/relationship involves a male and a female, that sexual act/relationship does not automatically gain moral legitimacy.

There are many sexual situations, in fact, that would involve a male and a female that most of us - particularly Christians - would say are not morally appropriate. Adultery comes to mind as the most obvious example. I'm sure we can come up with many, many more.

Similarly, I do see any reason to judge sexual acts/relationships between members of the same sex purely in terms of the gender of the parties involved. And, when Christians condemn committed, monogamous, life-enriching homosexual relationships simply because they involve members of the same sex who are naturally attracted to each other, this is what they are doing. They are looking at sexuality through a monolithic lens, with the primary moral factor being the gender of the parties. As far as I can tell, this is a poor way to look at either hetero or homosexual relationships, because it asks perhaps the least consequential question of the relationship.

In your comment you ask a few interesting questions. Please permit me to do my best to try to answer some of them:

You seem to start from the assumption that if something is genetically determined, it must be morally good. Is this correct or have I mistaken you?

Yes and no. It should be obvious now from the preceding section of this comment, that I do not make any monolithic moral judgments concerning the moral value of a genetically determined trait. However, I do say that something that occurs naturally in 10% of the population of our species cannnot be dismissed out of hand as being entirely morally impermissible without making a powerful statement concerning nature, a statement that I for one don't want to make. That statement is that it is either the case that:

1. Our natural dispositions are somehow outside the will of God, or

2. That, in some cases, God wills for people to be fundamentally wrong.

Setting the dichotomy up like this does pose one serious problem that I can think of for my view - a problem that will be discussed at length at as later time. That problem is this: What do we make of the theological and ethical problems posed by child molesters. If the desire to sexually violate children is a natural disposition (and it at least probably has a genetic component), does that mean that child molesters are either outside the providence of God in terms of their genetic make up, or, worse, were somehow willed by God to be the way that they are?

That, however, is not the problem facing us today. The problem facing us today is what to make of the theological and ethical implications of the genetic component of same sex attraction. What seperates that conversation from a conversation concerning child molesters is that it is obvious that child molesters cause great harm. It is not so obvious that committed, monogamous, same-sex sexual relationships cause any harm. Who, after all, is harmed by them, and how are they harmed?

That brings me to your next question:

I think that a more effective argument for the moral acceptability of homosexuality would be to show that it is good for humanity. This brings up another question. Can both homosexuality and heterosexuality be morally right? On what baisis?

There's a lot here, and I've already rambled on for quite some time (I got online to finish a post on another topic, but your comment distracted me - Oh to be so distracted more often!). So I'll try my best to be brief so that I can get to other work, and so that this comment will be at least slightly manageable to read:

1. It appears from this that you and I ask the same sort of questions, but from opposite sides, when trying to evaluate the moral permissiblity of any act. It seems like from your perspective the act must be constructive - that is, offer some tangible good - in order to be permissible, whereas from my perspective the act must fail to be destructive - that is, not present us with some tangible harm - in order to be permissible. In either event, I think that at least some homosexual relationships can be judged permissible, which would thus remove any possibility of a blanket condemnation along lines of sexual orientation.

That is, I think that some committed, monogamous relationships that include sexual expression between members of the same gender both fail to provide us with obvious harm, and in fact provide - especially to the partners in such a relationship - a very tangible benefit. I suspect that anyone who personally knows a healthy and happy gay or lesbian couple would say the same thing. Just as my marriage has provided me with a great deal of good, so too life partnerships between two gays or lesbians benefit the partners in such a relationship.

Of course, there are many factors that must be weighed carefully to determine the health of a particular relationship, but as best as I can tell the gender of the persons in such a relationship is not a major factor. I have no doubt that we will discuss health in sexual relationships in depth at some point in the future, as I anticipate from your comments about same sex attraction being a "poor environmental adaptation" that you are at best suspicious of claims concerning the relative health of same-sex partnerships.

In any event, I affirm that both homosexual and heterosexual relationships can be either healthy or unhealthy, producing either sweet fruit or bitter fruit, and look forward to discussing the subject with you further, if you prove so interested. I encourage you to find better grounds on which to judge the moral character of a relationship than merely the gender of the parties involved in such a relationship.

crystal said...

Interesting post, Chris.

Gene therapy begins with an assumption - the assumption that something is wrong with the way people are and that a "cure" is needed. ... same-sex attraction as a defect or disease. Let's put some money instead into that asshole gene research :-)

mrieder said...

Sandalstraps,

I would like to discuss the matter further, and if you like, I think email is a useful medium. You can email me by going to auniversenamedbob.com and clicking on "contact traveler".

Cheers,

Matt

Anonymous said...

Having been sent to a Christian school when young and therefore following the so-called Christian movement I cant help but notice that a lot of Christians focus on homosexuality as the primary thing. This despite the fact that Christ hung around with 12 guys, had no indication of having married or had children. You would think that all Christ's teaching were on homosexuality the way some people behave. Al Mohler for example is definitely consumed with this subject 24/7. This shows a mind that is not healthy in my opinion. One thing to keep in mind that a lot of this is perception: some people might badger a quiet person and keep telling them they are gay even though they arent.