Some Thoughts on Sexuality from the Fulcrum Forum
In the middle of a sometimes heated debate over on the Fulcrum Forum, commenter Ken Petrie has written an absolutely brilliant piece on the complexities of this issue. Enjoy!
As I see it, there are several aspects to the problem: social, psychological, biological, and theological being the four I find obvious.
Socially and sociologically, we live in a culture which has a unique take on sexuality and sees it as central to our identity. Over the last century or so it has developed a theory of sexual orientation which is somehow perceived to be innate to each individual and therefore essential to their being. To reject it is to reject the person. It seems to ignore the fact that many people change their perceived orientation during life, that children frequently bond only with their own sex and for many that changes after puberty, that some people conclude they are homosexual after a failed marriage, and some homosexuals fall in love with members of the other sex and get married, sometimes successfully, and sometimes not. I’m not referring to intervention here. This is just how some people’s lives unfold.
This notion of an orientation creates a dualistic view in which people are divided into homosexuals and heterosexuals, with a third category (bisexuals) being grudgingly acknowledged to deal with those who don’t fit. This dualism suggests the homosexual minority is a different kind of person to be tolerated or persecuted, and since most people prefer tolerance to persecution, the trend is to make it compulsory. Against this is a small minority of violent people who are looking for an excuse to persecute people and see the labelling of homosexuals as different as an ideal excuse. Such violence must always be condemned.
But the need to create the bisexual category coupled with the variety of real experience should cause us to question the orientation theory. Life just isn’t that neat.
However, if we reject the orientation viewpoint we also undermine the difference and equivalence model on which current government policy is based, and on which campaigning groups base their arguments. We are left instead grappling with the full mystery of human nature without easy quick-fix answers. It will take a long time to work through.
Psychologically, we are formed by our experiences which come from both internal and external sources, including cultural ones. It is therefore not surprising that most people will try to fit their understanding of both self and others into the prevailing cultural paradigm. However, that does not necessarily validate the paradigm and part of our calling as Christians is to challenge the paradigm (cf Rom 12.2). There can be no question that people’s identity exists and that might provide a point of contact, but none of us can presume our identity is an accurate reflection of how others see us or how God sees us. It is a subjective reality which needs to be heard, but might also need to be challenged. This, of course, applies whichever side of the debate we are on.
Biologically, we don’t yet understand whether there is a straightforward biological (genetic or otherwise) process at work here. It might be reasonable to expect some biological input to this phenomenon, but we lack the real evidence. I suspect it is too simple to expect a single cause because of the wide variety of human experience, and because we are a complex mixture of intelligence and instinct which is almost certain to manifest itself in unpredictable ways. A simple genetic cause of homosexual orientation would be self-defeating, since it would be a suicidal gene tending to influence the bearer against its own propagation. Such a simple gene would not survive many generations and would therefore be extremely rare. This almost certainly means a genetic cause would have to be more subtle and complex, and probably a side effect of other useful characteristics only expressed in a minority of cases.
Talking of causes could also lead us into the trap of medicalising the issue, which leads to the temptation to attempt “cures”, as has been done in the past and continues to be done in some places, and brings us firmly back to the original subject of this thread. There are two obvious dangers here: the first is that medicine is a field for qualified practictioners practising on the basis of clear evidence, and there is a real danger of “quackery” from people whose motivation is not genuinely evidence-based, or whose qualifications are suspect. Would it be unreasonable to compare this with the penchant for lobotomy in 1950s America? As the evidence is currently not available it is difficult to see how medical practitioners would proceed. The second danger surrounds the issue of who would decide when treatment might be necessary or appropriate. The ethical issues are enormous, especially if compulsion became involved with respect to people who are quite content with the way they are! I shudder at the thought.
On the other hand, does that mean people who are unhappy with their current state should not be able to seek understanding in the hope of either self-acceptance or change? People do that all the time for other perceived problems and in the absence of evidence why should they not be able to do so if their sexuality bothers them?
My fourth aspect is theology. Evangelicals are primarily theological in our approach to problems, and we trust experience and feelings far less than a soundly argued theory based on, or at least consistent with, Biblical texts. That is why the way to build trust with Evangelicals is to address the theory. Emotional appeals cause Evangelicals to feel manipulated in an attempt to distract us from what we believe really matters; God’s view as revealed through Scripture properly interpreted. They may even make us fear others are being manipulated in an attempt to marginalise us (and God!) That is why this issue has become so big; because the two sides are talking across each other without engaging and the result is distrust and fear. (This does not prevent some Evangelical preachers making highly emotive appeals in their sermons, but that should not mislead people into thinking their primary mode of thought is emotional.)
I understand the key text for the Christian understanding of sex to be the first two chapters of Genesis, especially 1.27 and 2.23-24. Jesus himself referred to the latter to answer the Pharisees’ attempt to trap him on the subject of divorce. The argument in Genesis can be summarised in our modern context as “two sexes, therefore marriage” which is at variance with our host culture’s “love, therefore marriage”. It is because there are two sexes that human beings pair up. If there were three sexes we would presumably seek trios. It is also clear from Jesus’ teaching (Mt 19.6 and Mk 10.9) that marriage belongs to God and is not subject to human authority. Just as God defines the week as beginning on Sunday, so he defines the nature of human sexuality and marriage. Human governments might think they have the authority to change these things but they are simply manifesting the blindness we call sin.
Which brings me to a second point. Christian anthropology sees all humanity other than Christ’s as falling short of the ideal, and this is true of our close relationships, sexual feelings, and intimate practices just as it is in the rest of our lives. He came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. When the Pharisees brought Jesus an adulteress to see whether he would uphold the law, he challenged them to produce a sinless member to begin the stoning, because they could not do so, and they eventually gave up and left. Jesus then set the woman free with an instruction not to sin again, but she was human, prone to sin, so while she might not have committed the same sin again, we can be pretty sure she continued to sin in some way or other for the rest of her life, just as we do.
Because marriages, like everything else human beings touch, will always bear a certain amount of taint from human sin, it follows that a certain humility is necessary in our approach to this divine institution which we mar through our involvement.
Sadly, the Church has not been very good in its witness to these two truths. For whatever reason, bishops and clergy are too keen to celebrate marriage only as the good gift of God and to ignore the shortcomings of human beings. Therefore, when it was suggested there might be some penitential element when a marriage was celebrated for a couple, one of whom had a previous spouse still living, the General Synod rejected it. I believe the ordained members felt that if a marriage could be seen as sinful it shouldn’t be happening at all, and to make provision for a flawed marriage was somehow to undermine the ideal itself. But the contrary is true; it is only by acknowledging our failings that we uphold the ideal which, for us, is unattainable.
I wonder whether this is because the English Church is quietly absorbing the sentimental over-expectation of our host culture, or because it has never been able to grasp the implications of Luther’s slogan, Simil justus et peccator. We live in the tension St Paul decribed in Romans 7.21-25 and it is only through Christ that we can amount to anything worthwhile at all. The warning at the end of verse 25 is also apposite. If we seek to enslave ourselves to God’s law we will only become slaves to sin.
I also find the language of orientation and equivalence unconvincing, especially if it is divorced from an understanding of our broken fallenness, because that would imply God effectively made not two sexes, but four. It is only in the context of universal shortcomings that any of this makes sense to me. If everything we do as human beings is inadequate, it is only by acknowledging our failings and our dependence on Christ that we can give glory to God and uphold his ideals which are beyond our strength. That is not to say we should not strive to be better – Jesus said “Be perfect as your father in Heaven is perfect.” (Mt 5.48) – but we should never fool ourselves we can fully succeed.
So we should not be seeing this problem in terms of homosexuals and heterosexuals, but of sinners in need of forgiveness, and doing the best we can to serve God in Christ while relying entirely on him to make up our shortfall. If the marriage service had provision for penitence we would be able to see that more clearly. All of us are inadequate in our lives and all of us can only do the best we can in the circumstances we face. Why then is this one activity being singled out as an example, either as a line that must not be crossed, or as somehow exempt from sin? It is neither. It is just one expression of human inadequacy among many others, including all real marriages.
I wonder whether this might provide the beginning of a basis for a way forward. For if we understand that we are often unable to separate in our lives righteousness and sin, as the wheat could not be separated from the tares (cf Mt 13.24-30, 36-43), and just as marriages contain things which are bad (eg jealousy, disharmony, unfaithful thoughts, predatory or demeaning sexual appetites) so homosexual relationships contain things which are good (eg love, friendship, support, comfort), is there not room to affirm what is good without condoning what is controversial? Might not the Church be able to make pastoral provision to do that? Might we not be able to uphold the ideal of marriage while recognising that all real lives fall short? Might not that recognition itself bear witness to the ideal? For it is by recognising our sin that we also recognise from what we have fallen, and can teach others what should be but sadly is not.
What stands against this?
Well, first of all there is Jesus’ own understanding of what he was teaching in the parable of the Wheat and the Tares. While his words are open to a degree of interpretation, the simplest reading is that he intended good and evil people rather than the good and evil in each person and that is certainly how it is often translated. The question for us, I think, is does one rule out the other? Secondly, there is I Corinthians 5, although perhaps that needs to be read in the light of II Corinthians 2.5-11.
If the Church can find a way to acknowledge all our failings as the basis for teaching the ideal, might we not have the beginnings of a solution to this problem?
I’m loving this. What do others think?