This weekend I attended the Midwest meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers at Evangel University. The theme of the conference was “Christian Philosophy and Public Engagement.” The keynote speakers included Alexander Pruss (Baylor University), Leigh Vicens (Augustana University) and the eminent Richard Swinburne (Oxford University). Each of the keynoters gave thoughtful and stimulating presentations.
Unfortunately Swinburne’s talk sparked controversy, though it really shouldn’t have. In his presentation, entitled “Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family and Life” he addressed, among many other moral issues, homosexuality. He noted that the inability of homosexual couples to procreate constitutes a “disability” and referred to those gays and lesbians who are unable to develop heterosexual desires as “incurable.” During the Q&A that followed, an attendee named J. Edward Hackett badgered Swinburne with a Foucauldian rebuke, insisting that Swinburne’s constituted “metaphysical violence.” Hackett never addressed his actual arguments but simply made this indignant accusation, to which Swinburne responded with admirable patience and grace.
The next day Hackett posted about it on the Philosophical Percolations blog. Hackett’s piece is a semi-coherent rant that misconstrues Swinburne’s actual remarks, though he is correct in noting that Swinburne believes—in agreement with Christian scholars throughout church history—that homosexual behavior is morally wrong. This was followed just hours later with disclaimers by both the SCP president Michael Rea and executive director Christina Van Dyke, distancing the SCP from Swinburne’s remarks. Rea’s statement, posted on his Facebook page, is as follows:
I want to express my regret regarding the hurt caused by the recent Midwest meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers. The views expressed in Professor Swinburne’s keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse. As President of the SCP, I am committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community. Consequently (among other reasons), I am committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. As an organization, we have fallen short of those ideals before, and surely we will again.
Not surprisingly, this prompted a lengthy discussion with opinions expressing both support and criticism of Rea’s disclaimer. Personally, I side with those who are critical of Rea’s approach, and for several reasons.
First, while Rea would likely insist (as some supporting him do) that such a disclaimer does not necessarily constitute a rejection of Swinburne’s view, such seems to be implied. Disclaimers like this are only issued when an organization regards someone’s views as embarrassing or problematic and thus effectively amounts to a censure. For an academic society to do this to an invited speaker is really bad form, but it is especially inappropriate when the speaker is someone of the stature of Richard Swinburne, who is one of the top philosophers of religion in the world and whose work for the Society of Christian Philosophers for more than three decades has been immense. If I were Swinburne, I would feel humiliated by this. Talk about “hurt” that is worthy of “regret.”
Second, this disclaimer sets a dangerous precedent and chills the academic air for anyone in the SCP who holds the traditional view on the ethics of homosexuality. Will I be the next one to be called out by an SCP officer if I express the same view at a future conference? While surely not intended to censor the advocacy of the traditional view of Christian sexuality at SCP meetings, from a psychological standpoint Rea’s remarks could be tantamount to this. Some Christian scholars active in the SCP, especially those who are early in their careers, may be intimidated into silence about their traditional views on sexual ethics. This is hardly an atmosphere that is desirable for an academic community where the free and open sharing of ideas is crucial.
Third, it is disturbingly ironic that Rea’s disclaimer distances the SCP from what is an historic Christian conviction regarding the morality of homosexual behavior. Would he have posted a similar disclaimer if a keynote speaker had defended a permissivist view on homosexuality? I doubt it. But now that the traditional view is under fire in our culture, he deems it necessary to disclaim a speaker’s assertion of the view—a stance which, by the way, was not as strong as some assertions in biblical passages such as Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 (not to mention the language used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13). One wonders if Rea would have posted a similar disclaimer if St. Paul himself delivered a keynote address at the SCP. After all, if the apostle simply read the relevant passages from his epistles, his remarks would be no less “hurtful” than Swinburne’s.
I don’t know where this controversy will lead or how this will impact the SCP. But one thing is certain: it is indicative of a dramatic and alarming shift regarding discussions of sexual ethics within the Christian academic community.