The other side of the homosexuality debate
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight concludes his message on the topic of homosexuality by considering sin, grace and love.
To conclude my messages on the issue of homosexuality I want to approach things from another angle. Quite naturally although the topic being addressed is specific, it has broader implications regarding the psychology of belief, fundamentalism and church business – and I would expect that these are being picked up too.
We often hear about homosexual practice and the debate about its level of sinfulness – and as we saw last time, sin, if it is to be defined not just in terms of a 'state of being' (i.e our falleness) it must be dealt with in terms of whether the Gestalt* components produce an overall sum total of negativity or positivity with regard to the Gestalt whole. In ethics this is the dialectic between utilitarian principles and an overall pursuit of personal virtue and goodness. Although in terms of how we deal with the socio-personal, society is a broad spectrum not easily amenable to Gestalt descriptions, we can infer enough to know that, say, murder and rape and theft are detrimental to both utilitarian principles and an overall pursuit of personal virtue and goodness, and that when fruitfully considered, the gamut of guilt, remorse and regret is inevitable if one engages in such behaviour. Not only do murder and rape and theft harm others, they are an outrage on the conscience of the perpetrator of those crimes, even to the extent that one can only actually benefit and develop and (potentially) undergo rehabilitation 'because' of such contemplations.
* In psychological terms, Gestalt is a summation of parts related to configuration of elements unified as a whole.
Now look how St Paul posits his reproofs with the following list, and spot the odd one out; idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers, lawbreakers, murderers, slave traders, liars and perjurers.
Taken as a mere delineation of the sinful vs the virtuous, homosexual practice seems not to fit easily in that company – because, unlike the other sins, to call it a sin one must call it a victim-less sin – and admitting that it doesn’t (or perhaps ‘shouldn’t’) harm people there isn’t an obvious reason why it needs condemning. Why did St Paul include it with the above (much more serious) sins? Well if one thinks of a biblical template for sexual union, it specifically falls within the rubric of an honest volitional expression of commitment and dedication to God, and to one's beloved, with God at the heart of the relationship. Think again of my triangle analogy - if two beloveds move closer to God they move closer to each other too. I can think of no reason why such a symbiosis would have to be implicitly heterosexual, and certainly there appears to be no grounds for its inclusion amongst St Paul’s other behavioural reproaches - unless as I suspect St Paul is not issuing a blanket reproach on homosexual love and commitment but on the kind of salacious and destructive behaviour that was seen at the time to be impeding the propagation of the gospel of grace. It could perhaps be thought of in the same way that we might condemn the present day binge culture and the drunkenness and cheap sex attached to it - not as a condemnation of drink and sex as intrinsic pleasures, but of their misuse and their excessiveness in over-indulgence.
Here’s the rub; we've said that murder and rape and theft obviously involve other people being victims as well as the perpetrator, and it is clear that sex and alcohol misuse, excessiveness are over-indulgence are harmful. But if a homosexual couple have a relationship and compatible sexual union that specifically falls within the rubric of an honest volitional expression of commitment and dedication to God, and to one's beloved, with God at the heart of the relationship, and to being faithful disciples of Christ, then not only is it the case that it is hardly a sin at all - its denial or suppression actually does more harm than its uninhibited embrace, and probably contributes to more sin than its acceptance.
You've all seen gay pride, and things like that - where groups of gay people parade the streets trying to make a point - demanding acceptance, respect and outwardly parading their "homosexuality" to those standing by watching. Consider why it is that other so-called 'sinners' do not behave the same way with their particular 'sins'. We never see murderers parading down the street demanding that killing be tolerated. We don't see groups of rapists, thieves, adulterers or vandals celebrating their acts and wishing them to be accepted. If this tells us nothing else – it tells us that heterosexuals don’t understand homosexuals too well, and that there evidently isn’t a feeling of being sinful on the part of the homosexuals.
Thus not only is its inclusion quite discordant on St Paul’s list – it seems difficult if not impossible to be arraigned for sinfulness when there isn’t the slightest bit of culpability felt at being homosexual, and no actualised awareness of why such a (to them) natural act of love and commitment shouldn’t be enjoyed in the same way that heterosexuals can enjoy it.
Furthermore, as an aside, this is why it seems best to take Romans 1:26-27 not as being about inherent sinfulness but about departing from what is natural to something altogether unnatural (which works both ways, of course, depending on one’s sexual orientation). In other words, we cannot easily take it as being contrary to God’s design (as per Romans 11:21,24) because we know from our current backdrop of genetic and psychological knowledge, and from the numerous testimonies of homosexuals, that it isn’t contrary to the created physiology but very much a part of it.
One thing seems sure – if homosexual practice is supposed to be seen as a sin (and it’s possibly true that it is) then, despite our protestations, the above makes it clear that it is not really a sin like any other sin. Perhaps the real truth is that it is unresolvable because it is not amenable to an epigrammatic moral summation or objective doctrine, and that it is one of those issues that one could justifiably argue is no one’s business except those directly affected by its consequences.
Once a sin always a sin?
Now an important question; is the feeling against homosexuality based on sound biblical instruction that homosexual practice is a clear cut case of being wrong whenever it is practiced? My analytical feeling is no it isn’t, but instinctively I have a hard job reconciling this view with a satisfactory gut instinct that there isn’t something wrong (or at least unhelpful) with much of what goes in homosexual relationships. I seem to vacillate between both views, but there are periods when I don't think nowadays homosexual practice is a sin – and I can feel comfortable with the view that St Paul was criticising specific prurient practices that were seen to be hindering the development of first century Christianity, and some of those were homosexual practices, so he felt it appropriate to mention them in relation to the threat they posed to the first century propagation of grace (see the book of Galatians too), not as a blanket disapproval. In the context of what is best for the church in the spreading of the gospel of grace, one must understand that in those times it was of paramount importance that churches had good and reliable leaders, because getting the church on the move was going to be met with heated opposition.
With the Bible one must understand that the people of the day understood the contexts of being homosexual in those times a lot better than many seem to now. I don’t mean they understood the biology or physiology better, I mean what the cultural implications were around that time, and the practices being undertaken – they would have understood St Paul’s disapprovals better than we do, because they were living in the midst of those disapproved actions. I should imagine that anyone reading those epistles at the time would have known full well that St Paul was speaking out against some pretty bad practices, not to do with sexuality or biology, but male prostitution and other unhelpful activities that impeded the conceptual clarity of grace. Remember St Paul had just had an amazing life transformation and saw the spreading of the good news as a job for early Christians, to give us what we have now. His grace theology was to surpass anything that preceded it, and in the context of the day, he knew that minds were easily corrupted, so he preached a message that sought to stop people becoming incorrigibly lost. It's a shame the bigots and homophobes of today can't see this; then again on this issue (stress, on ‘this’ issue) they may be further from Christ than the average atheist who uses his or her brain and strives for what is right and decent. If the epistles were only criticisms of first century practices, not of homosexuality under the right conditions, then it would seem that we have no reasonable grounds of objection to the ‘Unity in Christ’ church that I introduced in my thought experiment.
So although the question “Once a sin always a sin?” may be inappropriate – it is possibly more judicious to ask why St Paul demonstrated a condemnation of something we now look upon more freely and liberally, and whether those harsh condemnations were only harsh in the context of the times, and what Christianity was up against. Like I said, if what St Paul was most against was practices that could encroach upon one’s spiritual journey in a time when it was tough to persevere with, it would seem that he could have nothing against the ‘Unity in Christ’ church. On the other hand, if he has an issue with homosexual practice in any given time (as a blanket condemnation) it would seem that his views are now inconsistent with what we know about biology and the causes of homosexual inclinations. On those grounds I would support their right to have a loving relationship.
What about the alternative view?
As promised I will offer a philosophical case from the other perspective, but in working towards making it, I should like to re-emphasise this point; any action or feeling or uttering from a Christian that makes a homosexual man/woman feel anything less than ‘totally loved’, ‘totally respected for who they are’, and acted towards with a grace and kindness that Christ Himself would act, is to be taken as being a misjudgement, so I urge everyone to treat everyone else with the same love, grace and kindness with which Christ treated everyone, and not write condemnations that are likely to be seen as inflammatory, and not at all representative of the majority of Christians, who see homosexuality quite differently to the ultra-conservatives and extremists.
Scripture says that anyone can accept Jesus, and that naturally includes homosexuals too. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that this is an article about homosexuality I would advise you to be aware that the fact that homosexuality seems to stand out more against St Paul’s other issues suggests that the acts themselves are secondary to what is behind them, and whether or not one is repentant. You see, it is grace that saves us, and grace that we are under – so given that the sexually immoral, the idolaters, the adulterers, nor men who have sex with men, the thieves, the greedy, etc can all receive grace and turn from their ways and not be judged for how they were, one might suggest that St Paul’s point is not so much about the acts but about whether one is repentant. A Christian need only study St Paul properly to know that he confirms we are under grace, and that one’s own Christian relationship is not contingent on works – it is works that naturally follow from grace.
Again I must take you back to a typical couple in our hypothetical ‘Unity in Christ’ church above; let’s say we have two homosexuals engaged in a loving monogamous relationship in which both love and worship God and put Him at the heart of their relationship, continuing to do good for others in the community, I cannot find a reason to suggest that there is anything wrong. If the homosexual couple are born with the physiology that only permits attraction to people of the same sex, and if in acting on those impulses they find love, and their love has Jesus at the heart of it, then I see no grounds for reproach or disapproval. That being so, what philosophical case could I make to challenge my initial contention?
Naturally here I have shown that the sexual orientation needn’t be inextricably linked to their behaviour – and this would suggest that whether a man could be in leadership in church would not need to be based on his sexuality, but on how disciplined a man of God he is and how unimpeachable his integrity. Taking aside the confluence of negative forces trying to undermine their right to love each other and put God at the heart of their relationship, I cannot see any reason why two homosexuals in love can be any less-Christian than two heterosexuals. Certainly, the way things are, it would seem much more difficult living in such a way, as opposed to two heterosexuals, because a homosexual Christian couple would probably be made to feel guilty, and ostracised in many Christian circles – but that is not wholly relevant to the argument, because there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to live as I described, were people to be a bit more tolerant and understanding.
Unless we bring in some radical Christian liberalism to match the current times, it seems that as a church we won’t be very quick to address this problem. If we stick with the status quo then one would have to contend that if chastity and marriage between a man and a woman is the Biblical precedent, then those born with the genetics that will not enable them to be sexually compatible with the opposite sex are to be seen as having a bad luck of the draw in the gene pool, and are to put up with lot, and live a life of abstinence and denial. They must live as a single person never knowing the beauties of marriage and sexual love, while all the time feeling inevitably isolated and marginalised having to watch a world full of happy couples having something they cannot have. This is what many Christians must adhere to if they believe that St Paul was condemning homosexual practice for all time. Something about that just doesn’t sit right with me. But as I said, I don’t see a world in which homosexuality is as naturally pleasing to the eye as the Biblical marriage – but is that because my culture shapes that worldview, or because being made in God’s image I am primed towards marriage between a man and a woman? Am I primed that way because of my culture, or because of a God-given inner voice that tells me marriage between a man and a woman is what God wills, and that if you happen to be born homosexual you must resist the temptation for any kind human romantic love, and seek out God in a life of self-denial? In all honesty, I cannot say for certain.
Having a rule which states that both heterosexual and homosexual persons can become ministers provided they commit to celibacy seems a possible option. Of course it doesn’t solve the problem of why we should allow a male vicar and his wife to lead a church but not a male vicar and his husband (presuming the authority of gay marriage). Instinctively in a climate like ours it seems imprudent to have a gay vicar and his gay husband in leadership, but given that most of our views on homosexuality are continually evolving, and given that most of our present views on homosexuality are culturally embedded, I don’t really know why the idea of a gay vicar and his gay husband in leadership causes me to be ill at ease – I only know that it does, and that there is a possibility that it shouldn’t.
What’s more, I know that my feeling uncomfortable with this situation is not based on my Christianity because I have always had similar feelings over my preferences for male and female unions, even before I became a Christian. With this in mind, I can consider an alternative argument – what if St Paul was issuing a blanket disapproval on homosexuality, a disapproval that was meant to apply to all times? What would that mean for those of us who are more liberal; would we have to see homosexuality as unnatural (that would be difficult, given what I’ve said about biology), or would we be advised to help people change sexual orientation (good luck with that)?
No, perhaps the only response would be to say that they have been born with an unfortunate stigma to bear, and that if they faithfully seek out God they will have a life with a different set of challenges and joys as heterosexuals. Once again, we might be wise to not place so much emphasis on this one type of Christian life here – after all, it’s clear that each of us has different challenges as individuals; some end up dedicating their lives to monastic contemplation, some to looking after severely disabled children, some spend their lives in poverty-stricken countries helping impoverished people survive from day to day, some are endowed with such high mathematical intelligence that they prefer to stay in solitary study wedded to their lifetime’s work. Each of these Christians may well find that other things have taking precedence over a romantic relationship – and history shows us that many others spend a lifetime looking for love but coming to see that it never arrives.
The upshot is, as much as an absence of romantic love perturbs and brings a hunger that is never quite fed, I think that Jesus’ answer would be that romantic love is not to be sought or prioritised over a relationship with Him, and that in Him we find the truest fulfilment of love. With many He supplements that love by giving two beloveds each other, but we know that for many there are different challenges and different priorities outside of romantic love. The point is, I don’t think we can simply ask the question about why homosexuals must go without love, when we know that there are many other calls in ministry that entail or make conducive a life of being single. Moreover, I have read of many accounts of homosexuals who have experienced sexual transformations whereby God has seemingly altered their physiology so that their sexual orientation becomes heterosexual (The psychiatrist John White recounts many cases of this in his book ‘Eros Defiled’).
That would be my best reason for arguing in defense of those who contend that St Paul’s teachings on homosexual were not merely contextual or cultural, but permanent. Of course, this is what atheists cannot stand – if one lends support to such a contention, they are quick to jump on the Christian-bashing bandwagon. But there is something I must bring up here that most atheists are not honest enough to consider – my experiences have shown me that the majority of human beings are as resistant to homosexuality as the people they’re castigating. The Christian church has had to cope with much criticism regarding how Christians have treated people over the years (some of it justified, some not). And we know that the issue of how Christians feel about homosexuals is one issue that stands out as being divisive, because atheists will rightly reproach Christians when they are being unreasonable. But if their antipathy is based merely on Christians feeling repelled by homosexual practices then I think the atheists might be being disingenuous, and just using this as an opportunity not just to condemn our faith, but to put themselves on the moral high ground. I once put this to the test to show that most atheists harbour the same ill-feeling towards the concept of homosexuality as Christians do, it’s just that they usually pretend they do not, because in doing so it gives them a further opportunity to claim moral superiority. I proposed two questions to a large group of atheists, it consisted of the following situations:
1) You have a beautiful, kind, sweet, ambitious and highly intelligent daughter who has just turned 21. One day she brings home a 22 year old Muslim man from Pakistan who has been living in your State for the past five years, and she introduces him as her boyfriend. Now imagine the same scenario, except that this time the boy she brings home is a white Englishman. Do you feel exactly the same about both boys, on first inspection?
2) You have a 24 year old son who brings home a white English guy and introduces him as his new 23 year old boyfriend, and tells you they are very happy together. Now imagine the same scenario, but this time the person he brings home is a white English girl. Do you feel exactly the same about the boy and the girl?
On the first question, most of us wouldn’t feel the same about both boys, not so much because we would care about the race, but the culture and religion ought to pose a natural problem, because both of these greatly influence a person’s morals, ethics and their general outlook on life. Quite understandably a father would want to know all of those things for each boy to see if I thought he was a good match for his daughter. On the surface preferring the white Englishman might be seen as ethically questionable, but really it is perfectly understandable, and not racist. It’s the culture and religion (more the culture, really), because once the religion has taken root in a country like Pakistan, the culture is shaped more by the religion than the other way around. It’s not racist to be reticent here – she’s your daughter, and you have quite natural fears that a Pakistani man would be not as well suited as a white Englishman, because you want the best for your daughter, and as far as your fears go, he might not be.
Now what about number 2? Here the situation is slightly different, because a white Englishman and a white English girl would have similar cultural commonalities to your son – so any objection regarding the homosexual relationship would be largely about the sexuality. I’ll be honest, I think very few people would feel the same about both – but I think the reason is understandable – most countries have cultures in which fear of homosexuality constitutes fear of the unknown, so naturally they gravitate towards a comfort zone – in this case, boy meets girl, he takes her out a few times…you know the rest.
So, I think it is natural to say that you wouldn’t feel the same about either, yet when I tested people out on this the majority at first said they would, but after further probing most admitted that they had said that to avoid appearing bigoted or homophobic. This is perhaps because they have been culturally conditioned to think it is not ok to say they would feel differently about two homosexuals, even though evidently in most cases they do. But the results showed that homosexual resistance is not exclusively religious, it is a human trait irrespective of religious or secular affiliation.
As you can see, this has been an incredibly difficult to topic to consider, because there is no tangible measuring stick with which we can assess the assessment or judge the judgement. Furthermore, add to that the swathes of dishonesty from many atheists regarding how they actually feel about homosexuality, and the overly austere and intransigent approach from too many Christians, and we can see that it is perhaps wisest to take each situation on a case by case basis, praying for wisdom and guidance every step of the way.
From my experiences of homosexuals I have seen something at the heart of what they are – beset by inner turmoil and inner conflict that either manifests itself in a very animated ‘To hell with our detractors’ type bravado, or a shy adjunct persona whereby they live as though their own marginalisation is implicit in who they are. What’s clear is that when theological implications emerge, being homosexual brings with it a conflict within the self – one that in many cases cannot really comfortably accept God because God is associated with favouring marriage and heterosexuality, and sadly, Christians are associated with disapproval and resistance. I do not mean that homosexuals are easily stereotyped, but one cannot easily deny that being homosexual puts most of them in initial conflict with the milieu that strives for adherence to biblical templates regarding sex and marriage. So however hard one protests it does seem that homosexuality isn’t just to be treated as a taste or a trivial life choice; it seems perfectly obvious that being born homosexual is going to bring with it a greater degree of internal conflict than that of an average heterosexual.
Knowing the people I have known, I feel fairly certain that the argument ‘it’s all just choice’ is misjudged. I have spoken with gay men who have been suicidal and depressive because they felt trapped in an alien existence. I’ve had guys tell me they really wish they could believe in God, but cannot possibly relate to a God who would “make them this way and then tell them they are abnormal”. I’ve known many more who could not feel the slightest bit of attraction towards the opposite sex, only for the same sex – and as we’ve seen with the rest of the animal kingdom, that is clearly not something that can be edited out on a theological whim.
If there is an underpinning driving force in how we approach each case, I think it is clear that the driving force must be a healthy mix of love, grace, kindness and empathy regarding the human condition. In situations like this where I don’t feel certain about what the answer is, I tend to opt for a variant on Pascal’s Wager, which I will try to explain. Given that there is no sure fire way to say which of the above approaches is the right one to take, one must consider which is the worse outcome and the greater error, to be overly liberal and find that we didn’t take the sin seriously enough; or to take the idea of homosexual sin so seriously that one fails to see God’s calling for us to treat them splendidly, and see to it that a successful church like Unit in Christ is met with approbation not opprobrium.
So, all that's required is a kind of Pascal's Wager approach to this issue, which takes the following form. God may be against homosexual practice, or He may have a gracious heart more capacious than you or I can imagine. If you live your life as though the latter is true you will find that you have lived a life of decency and goodness and tolerance regarding this issue. If you live your life as though the former is true you will be on dodgier ground if you do not treat them with a healthy mix of love, grace, kindness and empathy. Empirically there is evidence that latitude is extended, because you may have noticed that people who are homophobic and intolerant are not usually very happy or fulfilled in other areas of their Christian life. I believe the Christian who treats homosexuals with anything less than perfect tolerance, love and acceptance is in one of two positions. Either he is worried that when kingdom comes God is going to judge him harshly for being too liberal-minded, or he is harbouring his own personal feelings of homophobia and bigotry which are not related to the ethos of Christ anyway.
Now, what if you take the wager that says - whatever God really thinks I can’t be 100% sure - but I'm going to treat them with as much love and grace as I manage, and hope that God does the same? That way, only two things will happen when kingdom comes. Either it turns out you were far too kind and tolerant - but you can say "Sorry Lord, I wanted to err on the side of love and grace because that's how I see Jesus calling me to be." I’m not sure what God can really say to that – after all, I did my best to treat them as I think Christ would have treated them. Or on the other hand, it might turn out that those who acted this way were spot on, and that such an ethos ended up putting all those homophobes to shame, and that they should have realised the obvious call to love and grace, but never did. I can only try to imagine what it is going to feel like if when you come in God’s presence He looks at you and declares that 'you' are one of those homophobes who found themselves put to shame by those more tolerant Christians who erred on the side of love and grace (a bit like what is portrayed in Matthew 7:21-23 but with the signs reversed)
That's the wager – always extend love and grace as far as is humanly possible, and this in effect shows that there is no excuse for homophobia or prejudice. Treat people well and accept people with the genotype and phenotype with which they were born, and employ love and grace to everyone. That's the Christian calling, and that's just for those whose starting position causes them to see homosexuals as being abnormal. I myself do not...but the wager will work for every Christian, and it's a wager upon which, when considered, I can find no justification in defending someone's decision to resist.
Pascal's Wager is often misunderstood - and yes I'll grant you that the version often caricatured is faulty, so it can't be compared to the wager I posited because mine was based on preferable behaviour and assenting to goodness, not on God’s existence. My allusion was only to "a 'kind' of Pascal's Wager approach" - I was only using it as a template, so even if my wager is faulty (I’m pretty sure it isn't) it would not be faulty in the same way that Pascal's is faulty, because his wager is formulated based on placing a bet on the 'existence' of God, and as such the Pascalian terms of function and predication are uneasily related to qualitative perceptions of His 'nature' as an existent being, where my 'preferable behaviour' and 'assenting to goodness' find their relevance.
If you consider again my wager as a mandate for preferable behaviour, you'll see it accurately mirrors Jesus' beatific edicts. This mandate has a double indemnity because one cannot conceive of a situation in which such a mandate would fail the individual adhering to it. In essence it's the same mandate that St Paul proffered when he said 'Love never fails' - and you know who he was referring to when he said that? Not the person who is being loved, but the person doing the loving – love never fails the person doing the loving. Whatever one’s sexual orientation, the essence of Christianity is our being Christ-like in love and grace and acceptance, and any refusal or unwillingness to do this is an indictment to which Christians of this kind will likely one day find them subjected.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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