Among the many issues dividing Americans at present, perhaps none will prove more difficult to resolve than the issue of gay marriage. With each side deeply convinced of its own rightness, the conflict is likely to grow ever more bitter as we approach 2020.
In rough terms this bitter battle is being fought between religious Americans, for whom homosexuality "sinful", and liberal secularists, who insist gays and lesbians should be given the right to marry--"just like everyone else". But religious tradition (or lack thereof) doesn't account for all people's thinking on the issue. Just as there are secular Americans strongly against gay marriage, so there are Christians and Jews who accept it. It is not merely a religious-vs.-secularist fight.
I myself am Catholic and was long against recognition of same-sex marriages. Even during those years, however, my thinking didn't line up evenly with that of most other Christians, not even with most other Catholics. Especially, I could not bring myself to accept the teaching that homosexuality was sinful--that one puts oneself further from God by succumbing to homosexual desire.
My previous opposition to same-sex marriage, along with the route I took to change, is documented here. I did a lot of writing on the issue over a period of two months, trying to work through the reasons for my opposition and balance them against my long sympathy for gay and lesbian struggles. In the present essay I will not rehash that debate, but instead will take up a completely different task. Here I will do my best to explain clearly and succinctly why conservative Christians have such a serious problem accepting homosexuality. And I will explain on what grounds I find their thinking in error.
Watching the battle unfold I have noticed that many Americans, even those with apparently strong convictions, don't actually understand the conservative Christian position against gay and lesbian culture. I hope to address this knowledge gap. First, for good measure, I will outline why sexuality has presented serious problems for all known civilizations, not just Christian civilization. Second, I will present the Christian understanding of sexuality, focusing on aspects that aren't widely taken into account by secular people (or indeed even by many Christians). Third, I will explain in depth the grounds of traditional Christianity's virulent stance against homosexuality (you may be surprised by some of this section). Finally, I will explain why, personally, I am not convinced that homosexuality is a sin.
Though I'm going to be as straightforward and schematic here as I can (try to get to the nitty gritty of things) I intend to raise further considerations toward the end of the essay which will problematize my own position and, hopefully, provoke the reader into a slightly new or differently nuanced approach to these issues.
I mean to be quick and provocative here. And I mean to cut right to the chase. But first I must address the small question of who this essay is for.
Many people, I know, will be put off by the whole premise of this piece. Likely they won't have made it as far as this, if they even clicked on the link that led here. For secular people in America and elsewhere, the very question of whether homosexuality is a "sin" is outmoded and irrelevant. The word sin has a bad flavor to it; it's so conservative, so utterly "outdated", especially if one is talking about anything related to sex.
If you're feeling this kind of repulsion, even feeling it a little bit, I really hope you put it aside and read on. If you're a nonbeliever, as most of my friends are, I guarantee you'll find something striking and odd in what I have to say here, and that it will change the grounding of your thinking on America's deep left-right divide. By the end of the essay, you'll better understand what the right-wing ruckus is all about when it comes to gay and lesbian rights. You may consider right-wing Christians your enemies, a scourge on your country (many of them aren't exactly endearing, are they?), but that doesn't mean you're better off not understanding them. After all, to fight an enemy effectively one must first understand what one is fighting.
So: Don't give up on me. You may have to do some slogging in the first sections of the essay, but eventually you'll see how it all fits together. And you'll better understand on what grounds traditional Christian thinking stands, and on what grounds it falls. At least in terms of the issue of sexual orientation.
I. The Real Problem with Sex
All world civilizations throughout history, up to and including our own, have had to wage a fierce and ongoing battle with sex. The conflict between sex and civilization is in fact so deeply rooted, so fundamental, that most people take it for granted. They never reach a point where they actually sit down to contemplate what is at stake. Yet they themselves (and you too) are already victims in this never-ending war. Here we are all, to one degree or another, casualties.
"That's just your conservative way of looking at things!" you may be saying about now. "You're a Catholic, you think sex is a 'problem' that culture must fight against. That's just your Catholic perspective!"
I'm sorry but I think you're dead wrong (if you are saying this, that is). The battle I'm talking about is real, it is fierce, and no culture has ever escaped having to fight it.
Consider: Merely to survive, every human community must accomplish a certain amount of difficult labor: food must be grown or hunted, then stored and protected (from robbers, from pests); fuel must be prepared for cooking; dwellings must be constructed and maintained; clothing and tools must be made and maintained; and usually the community must also, while doing all this, defend itself from rival communities. Thus a military capability must be developed. The question here is obvious: How do you get people to cooperate and perform all these labors efficiently when their bodies are telling them--strongly--to expend their energies in other, more interesting ways?
Sexuality is first of all a problem because it is a colossal distraction to the collective labor that must be done. The community needs to work together, and work efficiently, but look--whenever they have some energy to work and they come together to do so, the first thing on everyone's mind is how he or she might get off alone with one or another group member to satisfy the body's cravings. Even to come into the presence of the others is to risk being distracted and breaking rank with the group; one so yearns to touch this or that person. The simple human fact is: Nearly every healthy group together, every group of mixed gender and out in the open, always has sex on the brain, and this sexual energy can very easily undermine the group's efficiency and togetherness. It does so not only by taking individuals away from work, but also by leading them into violent conflicts over who has the right to have sex with whom. Sexually-inspired violence is one of the main challenges we have had to face as communities over the course of millennia.
This, then, is the battle at its most elemental level: How does a human community prevent sex from wreaking havoc on the work it must finish in order to make it through the next winter? How do you keep healthy young individuals working in the field when there are bushes just beyond the field where they'd rather go for a quick tumble?
The real wonder is that culture can accomplish this at all. Imagine the sexual energy that electrifies the halls of the typical high school, all the young bodies in close proximity and the eyes flashing back and forth. How is it these fevered primates can keep themselves more or less in order hour after hour, day after day? Civilization has beaten them into submission, that's how.
Starting when one is an infant, civilization teaches one to cover one's sexual parts, to feel shame if these parts are seen by others. One is taught to feel ashamed even to have such parts. After all, they seem to exist for no other purpose than to cause shame and embarrassment. Sadly, this is how children are led to understand their own genitals in nearly every advanced civilization. These particular body parts are not only dirty but useless--and that is why they are so shameful. Good people don't show them or touch them, and truly good people seem not to even have them. At some point, since nobody has ever dared tell him, the child may ask, "Mommy, why are boys' parts different from girls' parts?" But by this point the work is already done. Before their genitals even begin to cause any actual trouble, both boys and girls know very well that for some reason they are trouble.
Thus clothing becomes a crucial element in the fight against sex. One must keep oneself covered. And prohibitions against touching as well. One mustn't touch people anywhere near these special parts. "Come to think of it," says civilization, "one shouldn't even touch oneself in those places."
And all of this has happened before the person has reached the age of five!
Compare our situation here with that of all other mammals. We truly are bizarre creatures, aren't we? You don't see llamas or dogs or gorillas trying to cover their genitals. Perhaps these other species aren't really stupid compared to us; perhaps they're actually better off than us in this respect. Many wise people over history have thought as much.
The only thing that allows such extreme sexual policing among humans to occur is our other unique feature as a species: we have language. Language, so crucial to building our individual identities, buries these prohibitions against the sexual parts deeply in our psyches. One modern European thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, came to think of language as a kind of virus or mental illness that humans had been cursed with. Language, in any case, does most of the heavy lifting in terms of keeping us in line sexually.
So far I've only dealt with sex at a the most elemental level: namely, as a problem for civilization because it is such a distraction. And I've hinted at some of the strategies nearly all civilizations use to tame this unruly force starting in early childhood. But I haven't yet addressed the other truly enormous mayhem that unregulated sexuality can bring upon us. That mayhem is called unwanted children.
Now of course we tend to think all children should be loved and wanted, regardless of whether the child's father, or in some cases even the child's mother, is unknown. But in cultures living closer to the edge of subsistence, children without clear parentage present a serious dilemma. Who is responsible for feeding and caring for these children? Why should the group protect such children when each clan or family already has "legitimate" children to protect? In modern civilizations such children usually get basic minimum care, whether they are raised in orphanages or adopted. But in cultures living just above subsistence, such a child, which has already burned up precious calories growing in the womb, will often be left to perish.
Both to ensure that children are properly raised and to address the problem of sex as distraction or cause of strife, human civilizations have developed that basic unit of social relationship called marriage. In many cultures it is only within marriage that sexual activity is even allowed. The facts on the ground, of course, the question of what people might actually get away with, is another matter. Marriage is, somewhat perversely, the institution that both protects us from sex and allows us to have sex. It is also the institution responsible for raising the next generation.
To recognize the many ways unregulated sex can harm a culture's prospects is to better understand why all cultures, not just "conservative" Christian culture, have had to fight a fierce, ongoing battle against this unruly force. It is also comprehend why all cultures have developed marriage as an institution.
II. Christian Thinking on Sexuality and Homosexuality
Christian civilizations have developed their own ways to address the disruptive powers of sexuality. It is a mistake to suppose that Christian cultures are particularly "anti-sex". Elaborate prohibitions on sex and often cruel punishments for ignoring these prohibitions are the norm rather than the exception.
Christianity has a story that explains how the unruly power of sex came into the world. It is, of course, the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall, and as it is so widely known I'm not going to retell it here. In the early centuries of Christian history this story was not as important as it became later, after the 4th century Christian saint Augustine elaborated his theory of "original sin". According to Augustine, sin first entered humanity when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil". Infected by this evil, which we'd contracted like a virus, humans were no longer worthy of living in God's presence. Thus, as the story tells, God cast them out from Paradise. Henceforth they would have to labor for their food, they would suffer death, women would endure pain in childbirth. Further, again like a virus, this "original sin" is transmitted directly from parents to their children. According to Augustine, we are born into it, and it has corrupted us from birth. It is the virus of sin that comes to distract us from good and provokes us our frequent fits of selfishness and violence.
The story of Eden is an ancient myth that explains various things about our predicament: why we suffer so; why, regardless of the shabbiness of our lives, we can glimpse a more perfect world in our imaginations (we once lived in this world); why we must die. Myths are stories that are not literally true but nonetheless contain important truths we must recognize, truths we would find hard to convey in another way. Though many Fundamentalist Christians today argue that the story actually happened as narrated, that Eden was an actual place, this opinion was not even common among the earliest Church authorities, who understood the importance of such stories but didn't think of them as literally true. Yes, most of the great minds of the early centuries of Christian history, those that formulated the Nicene Creed we recite in our churches, would have laughed at you if they thought you believed the Garden of Eden was a real place.
Traditional Christian views of sex were certainly informed by the Eden story, and especially by Augustine's interpretation of it, but this is only part of the picture. Sexual desire according to traditional Christian thinking is sinful because it overcomes one's self-control, distracts one's focus from holy things or good works, and quickly leads to jealousy, violence, dissipation. The body and its energies are gifts from God and should be devoted to godly purposes: serving the community, spreading the Gospel, helping the sick and the poor. Those who are given over to lust will naturally neglect these things. Sex requires energy; the pursuit of lovers requires time, stratagems, and often deceit. The further one is involved, the more of one's selfhood is taken up in pursuit of the game. The ancients, like us, saw how easily we fall under the sway of sexual desire.
Sex is a matter of the body's imperious demands. But in the Christian view, we are body and soul and spirit united. We are called to something higher. Cut off from God by sin, we need salvation from this "body of death" we are trapped in. To fall under the sway of sex is to be trapped even more decisively in this vessel of flesh that will one day decay and return to dust. It is, ultimately, to be taken over by the nothingness that is sin. The early Christians prescribed a constant vigilance to all who sought escape from this negative pull, but as St. Paul pointed out in his New Testament letter Romans, the struggle was almost impossible to win without help:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:14-25)
We are now so used to writers exposing and analyzing their internal struggles on the page that it is nearly impossible for us to recognize how shockingly original these sentences were in the first century. In this biblical text we have the very beginning of Western psychological introspection, the opening of a new path for the written word that would eventually lead to Hamlet's pained soliloquies, Dostoyevsky's novels, psychoanalysis. Though these sentences may not seem impressive by modern literary standards, the imprint they have left on our history and thought is enormous. We wouldn't be us without the door Paul's spiritual struggle opened up.
Psychological self-awareness is thus already in the Bible a crucial element in Christian thinking on sexuality. In large part it was Paul's personal struggle against sin that created this new mode of self-awareness. What's more, Paul valorized a new mode of human willpower. Paul's writing taught Christians of the first centuries that individuals were capable not only of analyzing their desires, but of exerting the power of free will against these desires in the service of a new spiritual life, a life in which God's grace would meet one halfway to help pull one from the slough of materiality. The pagan Roman culture over which Christianity slowly gained ascendency in subsequent centuries understood sexual desire very differently. Whereas Christians developed an acute sense of the powers of human will, pagan ideas of sexuality remained part and parcel of the general pagan view that humans were all under the heavy thumb of fate and were thus inevitably tied to the uncontrollable forces of the material universe. Sexual desire was one of these forces. Against this view, Christians like Paul and Augustine insisted that individual free will could at least begin the work of pulling the self out of this trap. Grace would do the rest.
Many contemporary Americans have at least a rough idea of these basic contrasts between Christianity and ancient paganism. In the most common way of framing it, everyone knows that whereas Christians were engaged in a struggle against the body, pagans were more willing to "go with the flow". What is forgotten by most people today, however, is just what that flow entailed. Ancient Rome was a sewer of slavery and (both male and female) prostitution; the cruelty of the flesh trade was an everyday part of life. Among the things justifying this Roman system of oppression was a deep-seated sense that people of different classes were different in essence. Further, Roman imperial ideology stressed order above all things, and the "natural" social order had always been such. At the level of the individual life, fate was fate and it was no use struggling against one's fate. Rejecting this imperial pagan view of the world, Paul wrote as follows:
[I]n Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. . . . There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:26;28)
What do we have in these lines? In fact it is the very first time in recorded history that a writer has asserted the essential equality of all people, regardless of race, class or gender. Paul's sentence is a world-historical milestone, marking the first conceptual step toward what would eventually grow into our modern Western ideas of democracy and universal human rights. Our first assertion of equality is found in the Bible, in the New Testament to be specific.
It is sad that in secular America today Paul is largely remembered as the world's first stodgy and ill-tempered Sunday preacher, a hopeless sexual prude prone to dubious visions. What is forgotten (and forgotten by our televangelists too) is that Paul was a radical. Jesus Christ had infused him with a vision of the dignity of each human being, regardless of race, sex or station. Paul was driven by that vision, which sent him wandering the Mediterranean in search of new converts. Some time in the 60s AD the Romans executed him for his troubles.
Most of the elements of the picture I've sketched above are widely known by religious and secular people alike, others not so widely known. In any case they are not difficult to present in the context of an essay such as this. The next major development in Christian thinking on sex, however, is a different matter. It is both harder to comprehend and more fascinating in the depth of its applications. I will have to make a slight philosophical detour in order to establish a ground on which the reader might grasp this later thinking. The following paragraphs, then, may offer something of a challenge. But if you want to understand how contemporary conservative Christians, especially conservative Catholics, view sex and homosexuality, getting through this section will be worth your while. A different perspective on Christianity will open up for you.
The philosopher that needs to be explained here is Thomas Aquinas. He was born in 13th century Italy to a prominent family, whose wishes he defied by devoting himself to the Church and to tackling the theological problems of his day. He is the thinker most responsible for introducing Aristotle into Western Christian theology, an intellectual feat that led to his canonization in 1323. Previous to Thomas, Western Christian thought had mainly depended for its philosophical approach on Plato and his followers. For our purposes here, the important thing to grasp is the way Thomas led theology to concern itself far more with teleological problems. The Greek term teleology may be translated literally as "the science of ends"; thus: a rigorous endeavor to understand the proper ends or purposes of things.
To approach Aquinas' thinking, we must begin by acknowledging the basic Christian tenets that, first, God is good, and, second, that God created all things. Given that God is good, the universe he created must be fundamentally good. Thus, as Thomas would argue, the creation is a harmonious whole in which all things, from the planets and stars down to the smallest insects, serve a predetermined purpose as part of God's plan. To better grasp the implications of this we must step back a bit and think about what it means to say that "God created all things."
From early on it has been Christian doctrine that God created the universe out of nothing. This to to say that before God's act of creation there was "no thing". A clear implication is that God is not a "thing" among other things in the universe (as if God were the greatest being in a vast catalogue of beings). No: God is not a thing, or a being, but is rather prior to being. In this way we recognize that God is more fundamental than being itself, which is an idea that is nearly impossible to grasp. The Christian tradition often illustrates this idea by saying that God is not a being but rather "the ground of being".
The first thing God created, then, must have been existence. After all, for a thing to be anything in particular it must first simply be. Since God is good, existence itself must be good. Already in the 4th century Augustine had recognized this truth: "Being, as such, is good" (esse qua esse bonum est). Aquinas takes up and extends the implications of this ancient idea.
Faced with the assertions I've made so far, the thinking person will likely be led to ask: "Well, if everything that exists necessarily has being, and if being as such is good, why then is there evil in the world?" Aquinas' answer to this tough question is a subtle one, but many modern theologians do not accept it. In any case, this isn't the place to lay out the answer in detail. Suffice it to say that both Augustine and Aquinas would answer the question by saying: "Evil is not a kind of existence; it is rather a privation of the existence of a thing. To fall under the sway of evil is thus to begin to lose being. The end of this path, of course, is nothingness." If you can get your head around that, you will see that in Aquinas' view, the more a thing participates in the good, the more being it has. Since God is the ground of being and since God is goodness itself, to the extent that a thing is good we may say that it approaches God.
As a student of Aristotle, Aquinas held teleological considerations in high regard. Thus he insists that a thing partakes of the good to the extent that it achieves the end God has built into it. If a flower's separate parts work in harmony, the flower will grow and attain the maturity necessary to reproduce. In this way it achieves its end. Plants and animals fulfill their ends as it were automatically: they don't need to think about the goals they pursue; they don't have free will in the matter; through their genetic makeup their instinct is built in. Human beings are different in this respect, because God has endowed them with free will. Repeatedly during his or her life the individual must choose between different courses of action. Humans, in addition, have a built-in sense that their true goal is the divine, or God: they sense an ideal reality or ideal good and yearn to reach or unite with it. In Aquinas' thinking, this ideal good is of course God. Knowing or at least sensing this ideal in the universe, humans fall into sin when they are tempted to choose mere expedience rather than the good in pursuing their goals. They become distracted from the true good by the temptations of pleasure, material wealth, power, etc. To the extent they are actually dominated by these temptations, they begin to fall into that nothingness which is the true meaning of evil. This is why the wealthy are usually not as happy as the moderately poor: it is the nothingness that has begun to gather round them like a force field. Such nothingness can be observed in more extreme forms as well, particularly when the person in question has already attained material success. The more that person becomes obsessed with increasing their wealth or power, the deeper they fall into evil, until finally, in the most serious cases, they end up as little more than a hollow shell driven only by power-lust or greed. To those around them, such people appear almost like machines. Often friends who knew them in youth no longer recognize them; they have been hollowed out by evil. The only force left in such people is that driving them to ever greater wealth, ever more power, an ever higher high. But each new conquest has less reality for them than the last. These are the wages of evil.
Theology's discoveries here are invaluable. Unfortunately, many "scientifically-minded" people cannot benefit from these discoveries because they believe evil is a mythological concept. Observation of society shows they are wrong in this. A concept that has mythical components may also possess profound insight into physical reality. Besides which, all of our concepts (justice, red, balance, 3) come with a large measure of myth in their very palpability as concepts; each is a charged placeholder in the unstable web of language; we think we know what we are saying when in actuality we are weaving tropes.
Just as humans have their true end in God, so each human faculty has its own subservient end. Every part of the human makeup has its unique purpose in helping individual persons fulfill their being according to what God intended: thus the will, the intellect, the passions, the strength of the body--each of these is given us for a purpose, and we are to use them according to their natural purposes. To neglect doing this is the very definition of sin, for we are taking a gift given by God and perverting it toward something it was not intended for. Thus when we use our intellect to embezzle or scheme, we have perverted the gift of intellect. To misuse our faculties is to fall into sin. Keeping this in mind, and coming to the end of our philosophical excursus, we can return to the question of sexuality: What is the end or purpose of sexuality?
For Augustine and most of the Christian tradition besides, the purpose of sex is procreation. Sexuality is given to us so that we may bring forth the next generation. That the tradition stresses this as the only valid purpose of sexuality seems rather narrow to most modern people. But one can at least understand this tunnel vision if one keeps in mind all the things (enumerated above) that make sexuality perilous for communities. Christian civilization, like all other civilizations, realized that dropping the reins on sex would quickly lead to dissipation, jealousy, violence, unwanted children, etc. Most Christian thinkers over the centuries have kept their grip on the reins by means of this narrow assertion: sex is for conceiving children, period.
As with all things created by God and given over to human free will, sex can be diverted from its purpose. Since it is such a strong force, besides, it can easily lead the whole person from his or her purpose. If all these factors are kept in mind, if the logic they suggest is applied rigorously and legalistically, certain things necessarily follow in terms of Christian teachings on sex. The Catholic Church, especially, has stuck to this logic. Thus we can understand why Church authorities, regardless of the wishes of Catholics worldwide, persist in their assertion that birth control is a sin. After all, if the purpose of sex is procreation, intentionally thwarting that purpose is always sinful. To admit that condoms are alright is to admit that sex has a different, and new, purpose. (Protestants here, by allowing birth control, show that they are not so much under the sway of Aristotelian thinking. But Protestants too have strong ideas about what is "natural" and "divinely intended" in human sexuality. Basing their thought more directly on biblical passages, typically privileging those passages that buttress their sense of self-righteousness, conservative Protestants make up the most violently anti-homosexual contingent in America.)
Personally I believe the Church's continued fight against contraception is wrongheaded. I believe theologians should revise their thinking on sex and admit, finally, that it has a secondary purpose: namely, as one of the important ways humans express love for one another. Many Catholic thinkers have of course tried to push the discourse in this direction, but the change has not yet come. The tradition is strong, and its reasons for stubbornness on this point are many. I won't address those reasons here.
But now--with my quick sketch of Thomistic thought on being, goodness, God, and teleology as background--we may finally be in a position to understand the Church's problem with homosexuality. In fact, homosexuality, if all these philosophical contentions are true, must be doubly sinful. Not only is the homosexual offending against the ancient commandment in Leviticus, not only is he perverting the natural order of sexual attraction, he is further engaging in a kind of sex that can never result in new life. If sex pursued for pleasure is sin, gay or lesbian sex must be an especially egregious sin.
Now we can see the thinking behind much of the old vitriol against homosexuals. Heterosexual Christians over the centuries, having themselves no experience of homosexual desire, must have been at a loss even to explain the fact that gay sex happened. Having experienced anger, they could understand their neighbor's violent temper; having experienced greed, they could recognize part of themselves in the robber or the miser; having at times forgotten their woes in drunken revel, they felt they knew what the drunkard was after--but the gay man or lesbian? They could hardly conceive what possessed people to sin in this way. Their answer: Only the Devil himself could have inspired such bizarre, unnatural acts.
The necessary barrenness of homosexual love only served to link it more strongly to evil. For those whose imagination had been formed by the categories of medieval teaching, according to which evil is an approach to nothingness, this barrenness made of the homosexual act an almost perfect symbol of evil itself. Whereas love between husband and wife brought forth children, promise of the future, love between two men brought forth precisely what? It brought forth nothing. And that nothing, I want to stress, had a kind of positive negativity to it: it mocked God while pointing directly to the evil that had inspired it. Thus did the Christian world learn to see the homosexual act as a kind of perversely ingenious, frantic celebration of the power of evil itself. Thus were gays and lesbians demonized for giving in to the desires they had been born with.
In our current century only the most stubborn conservatives can continue to ignore the humanity of LGBT persons by holding to these traditional views of homosexuality. And I do believe it's truly a matter of ignoring people's humanity. Many conservative Christians now repeat the mantra "Love the sinner, hate the sin," but I find this to be largely a ruse. Such Christians, in terms of this particular sin, are in fact hating the sinner. I say this because any person's sexuality reaches to the very depths of their psyche. To hate a person's homosexuality, then, is almost identical to hating that person.
The reader must understand that I do not intend by these remarks to discount the value of Augustine's or Aquinas' thinking. Far from it. They were great minds who advanced our understanding of ourselves and our universe in ways that enrich all of us whether we know it or not. The problems I raise here are more problems of how these thinkers' ideas have been applied. But such mistaken or narrow application of theological concepts is not fatal to the theologies as such. If I criticize how Aquinas' ideas have been used against gays and lesbians, this is not to say I think there is a fundamental problem in Aquinas' concepts of sin, goodness, or being. No, the obvious errors in traditional Christian thinking on sexuality can surely be resolved without throwing out the foundations of theology. I believe they will ultimately be resolved when Christian thinkers acknowledge and honestly address the fact that sexuality has more than one purpose. Many Christian thinkers in the past half-century have tried to do just this, but it takes some time to change the thought patters of a two-thousand-year-old tradition, especially when, as in the case of Catholicism, that tradition has such a rigorously systematic philosophy grounding it. I'm not a professional theologian by any means, but it seems to me that the clearest route to change is to recognize a second purpose for human sexuality in the expression of love for the beloved. This "second purpose" of sexuality is one that everyone already, in the realm of the everyday, fully acknowledges.
To summarize, then, we may reiterate two salient features in traditional thinking on sex. First, this thinking entirely neglected what is evidently one of the important purposes of sex: namely, that it is an expression of love for another. In sex one seeks not only to get but also to give pleasure. In this light sex might easily be thought of as good in the same way a smile or an encouraging word are good: just as these do good for another human being, so does sex. The Christian tradition, as I've shown, does its best to ignore this aspect of sex.
Second, the depiction of homosexuality offered in the tradition takes no account of a fact we are only recently beginning to understand: that gender orientation is largely determined in the womb; that individuals do not choose to be gay or lesbian, but are rather so innately; that one's homosexuality is hardwired into one's very being. In this context, we might remember that according to the Christian tradition, one's very being is a gift from God. If one is born gay, then, as our research largely shows, that is the kind of being God gifted to one. Should one deny God's gift?
I will consider these two issues in more detail below. But first, we must look at some of the biblical passages underlying Jewish and Christian prohibitions against homosexuality. It is the Bible, after all, that is most often cited as proof that homosexuality is sinful.
III. Biblical Passages on Homosexuality
Anyone who has witnessed the enormous energy the American Christian right regularly expends in condemning homosexuality may be surprised to actually sit down and consult the Bible itself. In fact, though the Bible contains more than 30,000 verses, there are only a handful of verses that treat of homosexuality. In the New Testament, the uniquely Christian part of the Bible, homosexuality is hardly referred to. In the King James Bible now beside me as I type, the New Testament takes up around two-hundred pages. I could easily fit all the references to homosexuality on a single page. Especially noticeable is the relative silence on this particular sin in the New Testament's first four books, the Gospels, which narrate Jesus' life, teaching, death and resurrection. Jesus, although he fulminates repeatedly against the grave sins that plague the wealthy, against greed and neglect for the downtrodden, against the self-righteousness of the powerful, never once explicitly mentions homosexuality. When one looks at the list of sins Jesus does condemn, the list I just enumerated, what one sees instead is the very face of our prominent right-wing Christians. It's almost as if Jesus were sketching a portrait for us of our very own religious right, two millennia before their ascendance.
But this isn't the place to discuss our dismal televangelists and fake Christian congressmen. Instead we must consider some of those biblical passages that do explicitly refer to homosexuality. I've chosen three, those which in my mind make the strongest case against this sin. The first two are from the Old Testament, and the third is from the New Testament. Here are the Old Testament passages, found in the book of Leviticus:
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. . . . For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people.
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.
In the first verses male homosexuality is cited as one of the "abominations" that will lead to one being "cut off from their people". These verses are found at 18:22;29. Two chapters later the manner of "cutting off" is specified: "they shall be put to death." This is at 20:13. Thus in the third book of the Hebrew Scriptures male homosexual acts are cited as among those that deserve the death penalty--a sentence usually carried out by public stoning. Some of the other crimes worthy of the death penalty include idolatry (worshipping gods other than the Israelite God), blasphemy, striking one's parents, wizardry, acting as a medium.
That is how the Old Testament presents the matter. In the New Testament, St. Paul writes of homosexuality as follows (Romans 1:20-30):
Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
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 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.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.
What are modern people, especially nonbelievers, to make of these passages, two from the Old Testament and one from the New? It is indeed clear that the biblical writers condemn homosexuality in no uncertain terms. In the Old Testament this particular offense even merits death.
Fundamentalist Christians often quote the Leviticus verses as proof that homosexuality is a very grave sin. The problem is that these verses occur in the Old Testament, and that Christians who are thinking rightly, that is to say thinking as Christians, will recognize that, although the Old Testament is indeed Scripture, the inspired word of God, yet the laws enumerated in it are not necessarily binding on us who live under the "new dispensation" brought by Jesus Christ. Paul himself, the writer of the New Testament passage, argues this point eloquently; in fact it is one of his most important arguments and is, in the view of many scholars, one that made possible the spread of Christianity among non-Jews. The upshot of Paul's argument is clear: Many Old Testament laws no longer apply to Christians.
But which laws? This has always been a difficult question, one that often leads to the citation of conflicting quotations from Jesus and Paul. Suffice it to say that Christians honor the Ten Commandments (found in the Old Testament books Exodus and Deuteronomy) but ignore huge swathes of the other 600-plus Jewish laws. (Yes, the laws in Jewish holy writ are said to number 613.) Laws ignored by Christians include everything from instructions on how to perform Jewish rituals to detailed diet restrictions to a prohibition against wearing clothes woven of two different fibers. If Christians took all these laws seriously, they would not be allowed to wear shirts blended of cotton and polyester, nor would they be able to eat pork or shellfish. They would not be able to plant two different crops in the same field. They would have to stone any family member that left the faith for, say, Buddhism.
But homosexuality is also cited in the Christian writings as sinful, in passages written by Paul himself. Which certainly argues for continuity between Christian and earlier Jewish thinking on the issue, unlike the clear discontinuity we see on other questions. What's more, the New Testament explicitly teaches that previous Jewish dietary laws are not binding on followers of Jesus; it says nothing, however, about a new toleration for homosexuality.
But let's take a closer look at the Paul passage, which I've quoted at length. Paul cites homosexual acts as sinful because, in his mind, they are a result of ignoring God. God's "eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made"; thus one should reverence him, for he is the one God who created all things. Fools, however, do not reverence God, but instead worship "images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles." Paul here is writing against the pagans of his day, those who worshipped before sculptures of Athena or Apollo or before other deities formed in the shape of animals. For Paul, who believed God must not be represented, these images and these myriad gods were utterly futile. God thus "gave up" those who had ignored him to the state that was proper to their "darkened minds": just as they foolishly worshipped images made by their own hands, so they, with a similar foolishness, fell into the snares of a perverse lust.
Paul is here developing a kind of moral progression from pagan religious practices (polytheism with its cult images) to what he sees as unnatural sex practices. In Paul's mind, these two kinds of sin are linked. Just as the worship of a statue of Artemis is useless, so is sex between people of the same gender. Just as the goddess Artemis doesn't actually exist and cannot hear you, so homosexual sex can never lead to procreation. In both cases, a reality is replaced by a false image. For Paul, Artemis is a false image of divinity in the same way that a man, in another man's eyes, is a false image of a woman. Both kinds of relationship, the religious and the sexual, are similarly false and futile.
One must remember that Paul was a Jew, raised in the learned tradition of the Pharisees, and that his thinking on homosexuality was naturally informed by this Jewish tradition. One must also remember that Paul here is writing against the pagan culture around him. The pagan acceptance of homosexual love had always scandalized the Jews, and Paul is here developing that familiar theme.
So is Paul here mainly condemning homosexuality or is he mainly condemning paganism? I think the answer, on balance, is that he is condemning both. But it's important to note the context of the passage. It is quite clear to me that Paul, in the main, is using homosexuality as evidence of the corruption of paganism. It's a kind of slippery slope argument against the religions of Greece and Rome, as if Paul were saying: "First you men worship objects made of wood and stone, soon enough you'll be sleeping with other men. And look--it's already happening!" The polemical point of the quoted verses is not so much that homosexuality is evil, but rather that idolatry is evil. For Paul, homosexuality is an advanced symptom of idolatry.
These brief passages, among the few in Scripture that explicitly condemn homosexual acts, show on balance that, in the biblical view, homosexuality is sinful and an offense against God. That this sin is not mentioned nearly as often as certain other sins (idolatry, greed, indifference to the poor, ostentatious wealth) shows in my mind, however, that the American Christian right has its priorities mixed up. In the biblical view, homosexuality is not the main sin on the block, and probably doesn't even make the top five.
IV. Why homosexuality is not "sinful"
Now here I have just demonstrated how the Bible, in both testaments, underlines the sinfulness of homosexual acts, so how is it I can go on in this section to argue that, essentially, homosexuality is not sinful? I can do so because of my understanding of the authority of the Bible.
As a Christian I believe that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit and that it contains the truest representation of our relationship with God. There are passages I believe to be quite directly inspired by the Spirit. For me, the most reliable instances of this are to be found in the prophets and in the Gospels. Nonetheless, I do not consider the Bible accurate everywhere and always. It is a product of its ancient milieu, and its formulations often reflect ancient ways of thinking. We must thus approach the Bible in a nuanced interpretive way; it is neither a science textbook nor a medical treatise, but rather an ancient record of man's encounters with God. Written in human language and recording the human perspective, it necessarily contains errors, faulty extrapolations, dizzying literary tropes. These do not, however, prevent the Bible from serving as a gateway to God. Quite the contrary: we too are human. (One may find a more detailed presentation of the issue of biblical authority here.)
Neither at the time of the writing of the Leviticus passages nor in Paul's day did anyone in the Mediterranean world have a good understanding of how individual gender orientation came about. Gender orientation was only observed in its outcome--behavior that seemed scandalous to the doctrinally heterosexual Jews. How could they account for such behavior? It had to be something that entered one like an evil spirit: a corrupting spirit that turned one's desires from what they would naturally have remained had one only stayed steadfast in the right worship of God. Thus, to look closely at the Paul passage, we see that in his mind homosexuality comes about as the end point of a progression of mental errors that begins with wrong worship. This is Paul's first-century interpretation. How shall we now assess that interpretation?
Personally I do not believe that the gay and lesbian people around me are the way they are because they worshipped idols. I think, simply, that Paul is factually wrong in this passage, and that, further, his medical or anthropological error, understandable for a man living in the ancient world, has resulted in centuries of unjust persecution of people who are not gay because they choose to be so, or because of what deities they have worshipped, but because they were born that way.
(Yes, the issues here are more complex than I am making them out to be, as anyone who has studied the ancient world knows. Many pagan cultures weren't so much divided between gay and straight people, but were largely bisexual. The ancient Greeks especially found nothing odd in pursuing sexual relations with both sexes. The men of classical Athens insisted that the most noble kind of love was between men, but Athenian men were not on that account mostly "gay" in our sense of the word. They could pursue relations with female lovers too, and were expected to marry and produce children. Doubtless there were some among them who weren't interested in female lovers, and these we might consider "gay" in our sense of the term. Presumably a similar percentage of Greek women weren't attracted to sex with males. But it is difficult for us to research these things, given that the ambient culture was so openly bisexual. In any case, our modern classification of "orientations" doesn't fit evenly on the ancient world.)
Insights offered by modern research must influence our thinking here. Most of the biblical passages condemning homosexuality do so on the understanding that it is a kind of willful flouting of God or a chosen perversion of nature. We now know that this is not an accurate description of how homosexuals come to be the way they are. If, then, the biblical understanding of the causes of homosexuality are in error, is it not possible that the ascription of sinfulness is also in error?
This is the path I choose to take on the issue. As sexual orientation is to a large degree hardwired, we cannot think of gays and lesbians as people who might be "cured". Their sexual desires are as strong and as intimate a part of their makeup as heterosexual desires are an intimate part of other people's makeup. To condemn gays and lesbians to a life without sexual expression is thus a cruel and unusual punishment for something that is not inherently sinful.
The conclusion we must draw is clear: It is no more sinful for an LGBT person to make love to the one they love than it is for someone born blind to walk the street with a white cane. Yes, I'm aware this analogy will likely please neither conservative Christians nor LGBT activists. This fact alone suggests to me it might be right on the mark as far as analogies go.
I recognize all individuals' right to sexual expression. As long as sexual acts are a matter of mutual consent, as long as no one is victimized, morality has not been offended. I believe God has not been offended either. Given that Jesus repeatedly stresses compassion and love for others as what God most wants from us, I am simply not convinced that God is especially concerned with one's sexual orientation.
But as I am a Christian I do recognize that sexual desire can easily lead to sin. It can lead to jealousy, selfishness, indifference to our neighbor's wellbeing. Driven by lust, we might easily devote ourselves to the cult of our own beauty, neglecting to cultivate the beauty of our soul; we might concentrate our time or resources on pursuing pleasure, while the suffering of the world continues around us. These potentially sinful aspects of sex are too easily ignored in our hedonistic capitalist culture. And yet--heterosexuals fall prey to these sins just as easily as homosexuals. Sex potentially leads to sin regardless of orientation.
In a world of ongoing war, a world of ever-more-extravagant wealth and ever greater numbers in dire poverty, a world whose out-of-control economic development will bring almost certain environmental collapse in the near future--in this world the thought of two teenagers experiencing sex for the first time, or the thought of the the man next-door finding ecstasy in the arms of his male lover, does not impress me as particularly sinful. In fact, such things seem to me particularly human--they offer an image of human togetherness and truth that stands in defiance of a world that is quickly becoming less than human. It is these humans, these lovers, that God has created in his image. As for the transnational machines that now threaten our very existence, they are something else entirely. Look to the murderous greed and materialism of our society if you want to see the true face of sin.
In the above I have laid out the traditional Christian understanding of homosexuality and have further argued that homosexual love, given what we know today, should no longer be considered sinful. Of course I'm keenly aware of the ways my argument can be attacked by conservative Christians. In fact I initially intended to present some of these counter-arguments in this concluding section of the essay, but I've decided not to. That I've opted not to argue against myself should not be taken to mean that I want to "cover up" these alternative ways of understanding biblical or Church authority. Rather, I'm not going to do it because I think extending the essay this way would be, in the main, tedious. Besides, the particular arguments I had in mind (on the inerrancy of all biblical passages, on how a sin being predestined doesn't discount it being a sin, etc.) can be heard elsewhere, and at high decibel. For those who are overly curious I offer a sketch of how I would have gone about these counter-arguments in Appendix 1 below.
On many issues my thinking is a tense combination of liberal and conservative. Anyone who reads my posts linked above will see that this was especially true of my approach to sexual orientation. Though as an adult I've never been convinced homosexuality was sinful, nonetheless until recently I was strongly against same-sex marriage. Quite simply, I insisted that these two positions could be held at the same time without contradiction.
It's extraordinary how quickly America is being convinced to let a fundamental institution like marriage be redefined. I suspect, actually, that a good deal of the support for same-sex marriage comes from heterosexuals who would be happy to take up almost any banner as long as it pissed off religious people. Many people on the religious right certainly deserve much of the scorn they get. Nonetheless the religious traditions that shaped our culture do not. The Western world's concept of inalienable human rights arose on Christian soil for a reason. Now this concept of rights is being championed by people who at the same time show unremitting scorn for the tradition that gave it to them. Which is intellectually shallow at the very least.
As the battle over marriage continues I would hope to be able to help mediate the conflict. If equality before the law demands that the right of LGBT people to marry be recognized, American religious liberty demands that those who are unwilling to change their thinking on marriage be left to speak and live as they choose--that they not be forced to acknowledge these new marriages just because the secular state does. I am disappointed so far in the extreme intolerance many gays and lesbians are now showing toward those who disagree with these changes to marriage. If they win this battle, which looks likely in the near term, I'm convinced there will be ever more legal cases forcing conservatives to comply with the new secular regime. When these particular battles happen, I will try to find a mediating position, but if push comes to shove I will side with the churches. Though I will almost certainly continue to support the right of gays and lesbians to marry, their newly won right, forged in a decade or two, is not as fundamental to me as the right of religious people to hold to a religious tradition with two millennia of history. To the extent that I am a liberal, I am certainly a pluralist liberal rather than what is called a comprehensive liberal. The liberal project allows people who disagree about some fundamentals to live next to each other in mutual tolerance; it does not seek to enforce any wide-reaching social doctrine. (If any reader would like to see how a pluralist liberal fares in a room full of knee-jerk comprehensive liberals, read my editorial "Protecting Religious Liberty in the Era of Marriage Equality", and read the illiberal comment thread that follows. That thread is a wake-up call to anyone who thinks our "liberals" can practice tolerance toward those who disagree with them. And before that thread was even over the extremists at Daily Kos--i.e., seventy percent of the community--managed it so that I wasn't even allowed to add comments in the discussion of my own editorial. And got me banished for a month from posting of any kind at the Daily Kos site. It's called censorship.)
Finally, I hope this essay has accomplished its main goal of helping secular-minded Americans better understand traditional Christian thinking on sexuality. As a Christian, I find flaws in traditional Christian thought, but flaws that can be addressed.
Appendix 1: For the Overly Curious
When I outlined this essay, before writing it, I intended to conclude it by looking at some of the possible arguments against my claim that homosexuality should no longer be regarded as sinful. Here I'll quickly sketch out how I would have presented the strongest of these arguments. Based almost entirely on biblical passages, it's an argument one might expect from a conservative Protestant. As follows: Starting with proof texts from Exodus (4:21-23; 9:27-28; 10:1-2; etc.) I would have introduced the thorny problem of sin and predestination as already implicit in the earliest narratives of the Bible. Pharaoh was a cruel man, yes, but in the story of the liberation of the Israelites the text of Exodus shows that God himself "hardened" Pharaoh's heart. Thus God's punishment of Pharaoh, ending in the death of all Egypt's firstborn males including the royal prince, may to some degree be seen as punishment for a stubbornness God himself induced. I would have further evidenced this "predestinarian" strand of biblical thinking on sin (namely that sin is not always simply a matter of free will but sometimes rather a state into which God has let the sinner fall) in Isaiah 6:9-10 and its usage in Mark 4. Finally I would have returned to Paul's passage on homosexuality quoted above and shown how this predestinarian thinking can be found at Romans 1:26. Brought to bear on homosexuality, such thinking may suggest, as some conservatives seem to believe, that the innateness of homosexual orientation is ultimately irrelevant to whether it is sinful or not: i.e., such innateness in no way excuses it from being the sin the Bible portrays it to be. In the most radical Protestant modes of thinking, after all, the elect are predestined to salvation, as all others are to damnation, so those predestined to homosexuality are predestined to sin. I would have concluded by explaining why I find this approach unpersuasive, that though I do recognize this strand in the biblical presentation, I do not feel it outweighs the other biblical way of presenting sin, namely that sin is a matter of free will, as was the first sin in the story of Eden. In a more general or cosmological way I have speculated on such issues (ultimately a matter of theodicy) in passages in my book Heretic Days (a book, as its title suggests, of wide-ranging speculations). Though raised a Protestant, my early rejection of predestinarian thinking was part of what led to my conversion to Catholicism. I have always believed strongly in free will, not as a sort of layman's fiction, but as a truth about the universe and how God relates to it.
Appendix 2: Theology, the Church, and Homosexuality
[The remarks originally posted here were somewhat confused and did not quite convey my thinking. I've rewritten them in a fuller form and posted them as Homosexuality: Three Routes the Catholic Church Might Take. --E.M., May 2014]
Any reader of this piece who believes strongly that homosexuality is a "lifestyle choice" rather than something determined during fetal development is invited to consult the following links. The first was posted by Dan Eden in 2011 and offers a fast-paced review of research up to that time. Dan's conclusion is basically my own conclusion: the science points to prenatal development as decisive in determining sexual orientation. The second is a Wikipedia article which presents a wider range of perspectives.
Daniel Eden: What Science Knows about Homosexuality
Wikipedia: Biology and Sexual Orientation