Some Thoughts on the Debate – 1 – Competing Anthropologies and Moralities
This is the first of a short series of posts sharing my thoughts on the current position of the sexuality debate within the Anglican Church. Please feel free to comment below.
I get more than the occasional email from those on the pro-gay side who accuse me of deceit in my account of my life. The emails tend to take one of the following lines of argument:
"Your testimony is a lie because you
a) are deceiving yourself – you are in fact simply continuing to ‘repress’ your homosexuality and pretending to be ‘straight’. In fact there has been no change at all in your orientation.
b) weren’t ever gay in the first place. You are simply a confused heterosexual / bisexual who has now finally worked out what you are / shifted to emphasis your heterosexuality (delete as applicable)"
I’m not going to give a response to either of those two criticisms at this time, but rather I want to ask the question, "why do these criticisms come"? What is the reason that so many people have to be so violently opposed to what I have said and written, to the extent that they accuse me of a gross act of disemblance?
The reason is, I believe, simply this – the story of my life disproves the anthropology that pro-gay activists work within, in a way that the story of their lives doesn’t upset my anthropology.
Let me explain. Time and time again I meet pro-gay activists, both those who self-identify as gay and those who don’t, who come out with the simple but easy to understand phrase – "People who are gay are born gay and there’s nothing they can do to change it – they/we need to accept it and move on". I meet plenty of men who would claim such an anthropology, and indeed I can see why they would believe as much. For most men who self-identify as gay, it’s not even vaguely a choice to be attracted to those of the same sex, and whenever you first become aware of sexual feelings towards the opposite sex (in my own case in my early twenties), it’s very easy to look back on your childhood and to see both non-sexual attraction to those of the same-sex but also a sense of being ‘different’ from the other boys. For most of us who self-identify as gay or at one time did it makes perfect sense that this is not just something that happened to us in our teens, but an inherent part of who we are from the word go.
And while there is still no discovery of a gay gene, or combination of genes, there are bits of evidence published each year that would point in the direction of a biological root for sexual attraction. Whether it’s research that shows increasing levels of self-identification as gay in younger brothers (which some suggest might be caused by hormonal responses to testosterone in the womb from male foetuses) or variations in the chromosomes of mothers of self-identified homosexuals, it all seems to come together to indicate that homosexuality is indeed something which one has no control over. All this contributes to the construction of an anthropology that sees men and women as fundamentally gay or straight, an orientation that is fixed before birth and over which one has little or no control.
But this is not the only anthroplogy that Christians believe. As a conservative Christian, my understanding of Scripture and science, combined with my pastoral experience, has led me (and many others) to believe that the above anthropology is flawed. Instead, the traditional anthropology suggests that idea of a "gay" christian is misleading. It does so on the basis that while the Scriptures clearly see particular differentiations in humans (male/female, greek/barbarian, slave/free), it never ever refers to sexual attraction as a defining observation of human beings. While some of the Scriptural understandings of human differentiation are biological (sex, race), others are situational (economic status). None however are to do with the activity that a human performs, but rather the setting within which activities are performed.
Indeed, the conservative anthropology ethically understands actions to be, on the whole, separated from the setting of the action. So for example, the commandment "Thou shalt not steal" is not predicated by the context of the theft. That is not to say that one might argue that a particular theft (the stealing of a gun about to be used for a murder) may not itself by a moral action, but rather the conservative anthropology says that the morality of an action is not affected by the person performing it (i.e. it doesn’t matter whether a man or woman murders someone, the action is still murder).
This is in contrast to the pro-gay anthroplogy that often argues that since a desire is present, and it causes no obvious, human defined, harm, it must necessarily be "good". For example, when arguing on the subject of homosexual practice, the position is forwarded that since homosexual practice does not harm anyone else (and when consensual is not perceived to by self-harming or to receive harm from the other partner), and since the desire for such activity is in-born, then the action cannot be deemed unvirtuous. Such an argument then views the apparently (from a conservative position) clear Scriptural case against any homosexual activity, and suggests that since the situational approach indicates that such actions are moral, that our plain reading of the Scripture must be incorrect. There must be an understanding of the text that fits in with the understanding that has come from human reasoning and experience.
And this approach explains why stories of change and variation/mutability of sexual attraction are treated by the pro-gay lobby with such scorn. If the starting point of ethical debate is *not* the Bible but rather human reason and experience, then the existence of personal experiences that seems to contradict an experience sourced anthropology ("I have always felt different or gay, so I must always have been gay") is a threat to any ethical system based upon that anthropology. If the ethical discussion is predicated by an assumption that sexuality is fixed, then a personal testimony that sexuality is fluid presents a challenge to the pattern of morality that has been carefully constructed upon the assumptions mentioned above (the immutabilty of sexual desire).
This is, I believe, why I receive so much correspondence and comment on this blog expressing sheer disbelief at my story and communicating the clear suggestion that I am lying when I relate that my sexual attractions have remarkably altered. The rejection of my story is not because the rejector has any scientific evidence to suggest that such a change has not occured. The fact of the matter is that ultimately same-sex attraction is a self-reported phenomenom and cannot be identified biologically in the same way that race or sex can (and that is not to suggest that that in itself proves in any way that homosexual attraction is not biologic in origin, rather that it cannot be diagnosed the same way that other human "ontologies" can be, independently of any social observation of the subject), and therefore the collation of the experience of same-sex attraction *must* take the same form as the collation of the experience of variance in sexual attraction. If someone says that are attracted to people of the same-sex they are intrinsically believed by the pro-gay camp. If they report that this used to be the case but now they are attracted to people of the other sex they are disbelieved.
I want to suggest therefore that the rejection of such testimonies comes not from any scientific basis, but rather because the acceptance of such testimonies would fundamentally undermine the anthropology that has been assumed by the pro-gay argument. If the argument about the morality of same-sex activity rests in part upon the immutability of same-sex attraction, then that argument collapses when sexual attraction is shown to be mutable. The response therefore is to simply deny that such a variation in sexual attraction has occured, not through any scientific observation but unconscioulsy on the basis that accepting such a testimony destroys one’s own paradigm upon which so many life choices have been made.
Of course, the conservative position does not have this problem. The conservative anthropology is absolutely content to accept that many, many people who self-identify as homosexual have experienced a dissonance from their peers from a very early age. It can even accept the self-reporting of those who have attempted to change their sexual orientation and have seen little or no change. None of these things in any sense impact upon its axiomatic basis. The (well though out) conservative anthropology, while refusing to define people by their sexual attractions or to permit any prescription of sexual behaviour on that basis, is equally not perturbed by scientific developments which suggest that there may indeed be some form of biological constituent in the development of sexual attraction. None of these things affect the conservative anthropology, because the ethical framework it has developed upon its anthropology is not altered by any of these things. Even if it is clearly demonstrated that homosexual attraction is 90% biological, that does not change the basis of the moral judgement, based on Scripture, that all homosexual practice is sinful. Such a moral judgement does not in any sense rest upon the causation of homosexual attraction but rather is concerned with the ethicisity of homosexual activity as defined by Scripture, not human experience or reason.
And this ultimately is why the conservative anthropology is vastly superior to the pro-gay anthropology, for it can encompass within its understanding of human being and behaviour the pro-gay experience in a manner that the pro-gay anthropology cannot do with the conservative post-gay experience. This is a crucial problem for the pro-gay side and under any possible understanding of logic means that they fall foul of the simple principle of Occam’s Razor, that the understanding that makes the fewest assumptions is the most logically reasonable. The pro-gay argument *must* assume that the self-reporting of variation in sexual attraction of conservative post-gays is falacious – the conservative anthropology does not have to make such an assumption about the self-reporting of sexual attraction by self-identified gays.
In all my conversations with liberals and conservatives I have yet to hear a reasonable response to this problem I am asserting with the pro-gay argument. It is not just a huge logical hole in the pro-gay anthropology, it is the practical reason why I and others receive so much scorn from those on the other side of the argument. Were there to be absolutely any acceptance that our testimonies were true (indeed if just one of our testimonies were true) then a whole series of ethical judgements, life-style choices and theological reflections by the pro-gay side are instantly undermined. Such an acceptance of the fallacy of their position is inconceivable to them, so instead they attempt to denigrate and deny that which would otherwise remove the basis of their anthropology.