In the United States the last generation has seen a decisive move away from the Judeo-Christian sexual norms that have reigned in the West for centuries.  This shift has involved a move toward sexual pluralism, the view that any sexual behavior is morally permissible so long as it takes place between mutually committed adults.  This is nothing short of revolutionary, as it constitutes a radical and abrupt change of practice and moral perspective.  This should be troubling to anyone who prizes the values of the Judeo-Christian tradition, because it flouts both natural law and biblical teaching on sexuality.  But it is also troubling for non-theological reasons.  Here I will consider several reasons why we should be especially skeptical of the rise of sexual pluralism.  I will give special attention to homosexual conduct both because this issue is so heavily emphasized by sexual pluralists and because it is now a point of controversy within some Christian communities.

One reason to be skeptical of sexual pluralism is that this movement has not been driven by rational argument, unlike other revolutionary developments such as the Protestant Reformation, the scientific revolution, and the abolitionist movement.  Rather, the sexual pluralist revolution has been powered by postmodern relativism, pop culture influences, and a confused view of tolerance that is really a disguised form of dogmatism.

Many say the sexual pluralists do have an argument, specifically the argument from nature—science has proven that our sexual orientation is innate, not under one’s control.  Yet here is another reason to be skeptical of sexual pluralism.  The so-called argument from science is spurious.  No credible studies have proven a biological basis for homosexual orientation.  Some cite the LeVay or Bailey-Pillard studies of the early 1990s, but these are seriously flawed.  Moreover, even if there were a genetic or congenital disposition toward homosexual attraction, this proves nothing regarding whether homosexual practice is ever morally appropriate.  For even if homosexual orientation is biologically determined, this does not imply that such people must choose to behave accordingly or that they are not morally culpable for their sexual choices.  To insist so is to embrace hard determinism, the view that since human choices are caused we are neither free nor morally responsible for our behavior.  The fact that sexual pluralists must appeal to such deterministic thinking shows how thin their rational grounds are.

A third reason that Christians should be skeptical of sexual pluralism is the fact that significant disagreement about the issue within the Church is historically unprecedented.  Never before the last generation was there ever serious debate among Christian theologians or ethicists regarding the moral legitimacy of homosexual behavior.  In fact, there has been considerably more debate about such fundamental doctrines as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ than there has been about this.  Other sexual issues (e.g., polygamy) have been debated, of course.  But not until the late twentieth century have Christians seriously debated the moral permissibility of homosexual practice.

This leads to a final reason to be skeptical about sexual pluralism: debate in the Church has occurred almost exclusively in North America and parts of Europe.  Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America almost uniformly affirm the traditional view.  Because of this, it is extremely misleading, even ethnocentric, to glibly declare that “Christians are very divided on the homosexuality issue” as some are wont to do.  Consult a typical Christian in Kenya or China or Brazil, and they will shake their heads in disbelief, perhaps even asking “What is wrong with American Christians that they could actually disagree about this issue?”  Good question.

For these reasons Christians are well-advised to hold fast to the historic Judeo-Christian sexual ethic.  In the coming years, doing so will be increasingly difficult, since this will demand a firm resolve to resist cultural currents.  Those on the side of biblical orthopraxy will be dismissed or, worse, persecuted.  And although sexual pluralism has no rational grounds—theologically, historically, or scientifically—it might be useless to resist with rational argument.  For a view which rises to prominence by abandoning reason can hardly be defeated through the use of reason.


18 Responses to “The Sexual Pluralist Revolution: Reasons to be Skeptical”


  1. Jeremy Erickson

     

    While I agree with the traditional understanding of sexual ethics and have concerns about sexual pluralism, I think that many of the particular arguments you present here are not good ones.

    One issue is that you are confusing the broader trend toward sexual pluralism in the culture with the debate within the Church. The debates within the Church often do have a large grounding in argumentation and are typically arguing for a less drastic change than the secular culture is. For example, many revisionist Christians believe that gay people should save sex for gay marriage, while those in the secular world would typically consider that view to still be oppressive. For examples of arguments, see recent books by James Brownson or Matthew Vines, or any of the older scholarship on which they rely. While ultimately I have not found the revisionist arguments I’ve encountered to be good ones, they are still arguments.

    I think it’s actually a bit of a red herring, on both sides, to discuss biological causes for homosexual orientation. We know from the testimony of countless people across the belief spectrum that homosexual attraction is largely involuntary for most who experience it, and we know from recent experience that it is unlikely to change for most. I’m not sure how the question of biological cause changes anything. As you rightly point out, this does not mean that people must deterministically follow their feelings.

    The further argument I see most commonly is not that it is impossible for people to resist acting on their sexuality, but that it is cruel or unfair to expect them to do so. There is a fair point that suicide attempts and homelessness have been shown to be shockingly common among LGBT youth, and it does seem that same-sex attracted people who choose to be celibate often face more depression and such than those who form gay relationships. I think these are powerful and good arguments against the status quo, even though I don’t agree with the conclusion that we must shift our theology of sexual ethics. My friend Julie Rodgers made a similar point here: http://spiritualfriendship.org/2014/04/22/a-review-of-god-and-the-gay-christian/

    Finally, you haven’t examined the reasons why the debate within the Church is primarily a modern, Western phenomenon. Research has shown that people’s views on homosexual practice correlates closely with whether they know a gay person. It has only recently been the case that gay people have talked openly about their experiences in the US and Europe, and in most other parts of the world the social and legal climate makes it prohibitive for them to do so. For example, in Uganda, life imprisonment is the prescribed punishment for homosexual behavior in many contexts. I think there is probably causation going on here. When people do get to know a gay person, they tend to find that much of what they have been told isn’t true. For example, they learn that the person really didn’t choose his or her orientation and isn’t a pedophile, despite some claims to the contrary. This leads to a questioning of the whole doctrine of sexual ethics and to skepticism towards the people who hold the traditional view, since the same people holding the traditional view also held false and prejudicial beliefs. People also wonder whether it’s possible to hold the traditional view in a compassionate manner, and sometimes conclude (though I think incorrectly) that it isn’t. Instead of getting upset with people for asking questions, we need to help them answer their questions and to address the issues at hand, rather than trying to shut down debate. My friend Ron Belgau made a related point here: http://spiritualfriendship.org/2013/06/26/homosexuality-and-the-development-of-doctrine/

    I definitely agree that social pressure is one issue that Christians face regarding orthopraxy and one of the driving factors for revisionist theology, but I don’t believe it’s the whole of what is going on. I don’t expect secular culture to ever find the traditional view acceptable, but I do think that both they and revisionists within the Church have raised some important issues that we ought to address. We should do so for the sake of showing Christ’s love even if that won’t satisfy all our critics.

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      Jeremy,

      Thank you for your comments. First, regarding my claim that the sexual revolution was not driven by rational argument, you distinguish between “the broader trend toward sexual pluralism in the culture with the debate within the Church.” I think that’s a good distinction to make, and you seem to grant my point about the change of view in broader culture. So, then, that leaves the debate within the Church. You suggest that the change of perspective within the Church has been based on arguments, such as those by Brownson and Vines. But you admit that these are not good arguments, though “they are still arguments.” This much is obvious. I’m fully aware that many Christians argue for this view. But this is very different than arguments (good or bad) being the driving force behind the movement, which is my point. The arguments used by “Christian” sexual pluralists, such as those you name, were not the principle cause of the revolution, but rather began to be deployed well after the broader cultural shift had taken place.

      Later in your comments, you propose to explain why debate within the church is primarily Western and modern (which is misleading, since debate in the church about the issue is, more accurately, contemporary—the last generation—not “modern,” which is a 350+ year period). Anyway, you go on to say that “Research has shown that people’s views on homosexual practice correlates closely with whether they know a gay person.” Here you inadvertently confirm my first point about the turn to sexual pluralism not being driven by rational arguments. Yes, of course, people in the Christian community are persuaded for these personal, largely emotional factors, not because of theological reasons. Moreover, this consideration falls far short of providing an explanation for why for nearly two millennia there was never a Christian theologian or ethicist who affirmed the legitimacy of homosexual practice. If this were a remotely plausible view, then surely some debate about the issue would have occurred somewhere in the world. After all, many Christians have been willing to challenge prevailing church doctrines even unto death (the list of “heretics” in history who have been executed for their views is a very long one). So one cannot appeal to fear as an explanation, as you seem to do when you appeal to “the social and legal climates” that “make it prohibitive” for people to talk openly about the issue.

      Reply
      • Jeremy Erickson

         

        Thanks for the response.

        I do think that pastoral reasons are a form of theological reason, and I wouldn’t just dismiss them as “emotional.”

        The new information that has been driving the debate is the existence of people who find themselves attracted to the same sex, and in many cases exclusively so. Furthermore, we’ve much more recently discovered that change in sexual feelings is relatively unusual. That means that the traditional ethic often means either marriage where one spouse doesn’t feel much sexually for the other, or celibacy. That isn’t intuitively fair and seems rather cruel. I think part of this is a result of the fact that we haven’t had much of a place for celibate vocations in Protestant circles, even though there is a rich church tradition dating back long before the Reformation.

        The fear I was talking about was primarily about LGBT people themselves, not about people discussing LGBT issues. I don’t think that straight people have nearly as strong a drive to question the ethic on homosexual practice, since they tend not to find it tempting in the first place. It is only when they have openly gay friends or family members that the issue becomes something to reconsider. Even for people who are more bisexual, there is always the option of pursing a heterosexual relationship. For a gay person, there isn’t an obvious outlet, which is hard to reconcile with things like Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7.

        The phenomenon of gay people “coming out” is pretty recent. I’ve seen the cultural climate become much more conducive even within the past several years, let alone going back any further. Previously, I lived in fear of anyone ever finding out about my sexuality, and most people I’ve talked to had similar experiences. It was only the realization that I could reach out to others in unique ways that changed my approach and helped me develop the courage to talk about my own experience. But I wouldn’t have done that if I were facing the sorts of consequences that I’d face in Russia or Uganda.

        I do think that the cultural change preceded this ability to talk about our own experiences. However, that doesn’t change the fact that we’re now talking about our experiences, and that the new information being sprung on people is causing people to think about things in new ways. That isn’t the same thing as simply changing in response to cultural pressure. Also, I think people erroneously tie the traditional sexual ethic to related beliefs, like the belief that sexual feelings are voluntary or the belief that gay relationships cannot be driven by love. So when they find out that the related beliefs are false, they conclude that the traditional ethic is false. That is a form of intellectual processing, flawed as it may be, and isn’t just succumbing to pressure.

        From what I can tell, legitimate pastoral questions and Protestant attitudes toward celibacy do tend to be a driving force for the acceptance of gay relationships within Christianity, in some settings more so than cultural pressure. I actually think there are sound arguments that we haven’t provided the sorts of pastoral resources that people need. A lot of people believe that the only solution is to change our sexual ethic. They find the traditional ethic unthinkable, which makes it easier to accept arguments that it is wrong. I don’t believe that’s consistent with Scripture, but I also don’t think that trying to maintain the status quo is a feasible approach. We need to respond to pastoral arguments with pastoral solutions, and we do need to recognize that many people are being convinced by the exegetical arguments and such.

        I hope that made what I was saying clearer. I’m low on sleep after staying up working on a conference submission, so hopefully I’m not incoherent today.

        Reply
  2. LizBR

     

    In addition to some of Jeremy’s comments, I’d add another reason why sexual orientation hasn’t been debated until the past few generations: it’s because sexual orientation is a relatively new concept.

    Matthew Vines (who Jeremy mentioned) does a pretty good job explaining a historical understanding of male-male sex. (He doesn’t talk much about female-female sex, but then again, neither does the Bible!) Throughout countless cultures, male-male sex was viewed predominantly as a form of excess–something that any man would naturally take part in if he gave into his base desires on a regular basis. More sex with women leads to sex with men was basically the idea. Of course, only the penetrating partner was doing something acceptable by the culture. The receiving partner was “effeminate” and “soft.” (Or, you know, too much like a woman.) The early Christian criticisms of male-male sex were based on that idea of excess, which I think we can agree is something the Church has sort-of opposed throughout much of its history. (Except, of course, when that excess was on the part of wealthy popes, bishops, kings, politicians, etc.) Teachings on excess are quite a bit more uniform throughout Christian history than teachings on human sexuality, that’s for sure!

    If you want to look at the church’s “historic” view of sexual orientation, you can only go back a few generations because sexual orientation is a concept that is only a handful of generations old. In that sense, there hasn’t been debate on the issue within the church because the issue itself hasn’t existed in the context we view it today. (I think that today, most people see sexual orientation as an innate part of a person’s self, and a mostly exclusive preference for one sex or the other. Even most of the conservative Christians that I know who are opposed to homosexuality argue that orientation is innate, but acting on that orientation is chosen.)

    You say that the church hasn’t disagreed on this throughout its history.

    But if we look at the broader issue of sexuality and the church, then we see lots of debate and differences across the centuries. In the Old Testament you’ve got rules about widows marrying brothers, a cultural acceptance of concubines and polygamy, and women being treated primarily as property (Rachel and Leah, anyone?) Then in the New Testament, you’ve got Paul saying that celibacy is the absolute best option for Christians. Paul’s references to “homosexuality” are most certain prescribed interpretations by later readers and translators–his condemnations of male-male sex were likely almost exclusively aimed toward the penetrated partner, the “soft” one. You’ve got a eunuch as one of the first Christian converts. You’ve got St. Augustine saying that procreative sex is the only acceptable kind of sex. You have Christian leaders denying that marital rape exists–a view that was present in history and is still present today. You have a shift in the acceptance of divorce, as well as re-marriage. These are just some examples of drastically different teachings that were the “norm” for centuries and across cultures while rejected for other centuries and in other cultures.

    If you view homosexuality as this separate thing that doesn’t fit into any subcategories, okay, but you have to acknowledge the idea that orientation is a relatively new concept and therefore there should be some differences in scholarship based on whether the debates took place before or after the development of this concept.

    But if you view sexual orientation within the greater context of Church debates and opinions on sexuality, then disagreeing on the status quo is not so deviant from Church teaching. After all, Church teaching has never been static when it comes to marriage and sexuality.

    There is no such thing as a single Biblical model for marriage, whether in the scriptures themselves or the great scholars and theologians who have theorized on it. Changing one’s mind on sexual orientation isn’t embracing some devious sexual pluralism. It’s not deviating from a great Biblical tradition of defining marriage and sexual relationships as exclusively between a man and a woman.

    Reply
    • Zeke

       

      This is not only a ‘penetrated’ issue. Women are equally implicated, apparently.

      Romans 1:26
      26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.

      Reply
  3. Michelle M

     

    Great comments, Jeremy and Liz. I appreciate that you press against Dr. Spiegel’s sweeping statements about tradition and the swift move to sexual pluralism. The issue is much more complex and multifaceted.

    Reply
  4. Scott C

     

    Dr. Spiegel, I’d be interested to hear your answer to this question: what makes division within the church on divorce & remarriage different from division within the church on same-sex marriage? Two prima facie similarities stand out to me: (1) allowing divorce and remarriage is/was a radical departure from a long-established, distinctively Christian ethical/legal tradition, and (2) for many in the church, acceptance of divorce and remarriage seems to have its roots in knowing divorced & remarried people; many Christians accept divorce & remarriage not on the basis of careful biblical study but on the basis of cultural influences (within and outside of the church).

    What, in your view, makes acceptance of divorce & remarriage in the church less troubling than acceptance of same-sex marriage? If you can, please relate your answer to postmodernism, pop culture influence, a confused view of tolerance, natural law, and ethnocentrism, as well as established traditional norms within the Christian religion.

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      Scott, that’s an interesting question. I suppose one reason for the difference might pertain to the fact that Jesus recognizes legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage (in Matthew 19), whereas there is no such accommodation to homosexual practice, much less same-sex marriage, in Scripture. Also, your suggested parallel between the two cases regarding the “long-established” tradition of the church does not really apply. The early Christian theologian Origen accepted remarriage after divorce in the case of adultery. Protestant Reformers (e.g., Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, Knox) affirmed the moral permissibility of divorce and remarriage (given certain strict conditions, such as an adulterous spouse–cf. Mt. 19), and before that and afterwards many theologians in the Eastern church took a similar position.

      Reply
  5. Zeke

     

    I…don’t hear anyone saying anything about the Word of God. Why is that? Are we talking within the bounds of Christianity? God has a lot to say about sexual acts between men, women, animals. Jesus said a lot about lust. I hear, ‘biology’, ‘society’, ‘orientation’, but little about defending (or, more likely, attacking) Biblical authority.
    “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”
    Shouldn’t we, rather, be studying the Word, and bringing these issues to IT, instead of asking God to explain himself as to why he opposes the current social trends?
    Likewise, pointing out the flaws of the church throughout history does not give us the right to criticize every doctrine, tradition, or biblical tenant. A lack of understanding of scripture does not allow a total rewrite. The forest is being missed for all the trees, I fear.

    Reply
    • Jeremy Erickson

       

      I’m not certain if your reply was intended for me along with others, but I am not denying Biblical authority. I said multiple times that I agree with the traditional sexual ethic, and (though I didn’t make it explicit before) Biblical authority is basically the reason for that. My comment was already long, so I limited the scope to my concerns with the arguments presented in the post.

      I’m suspecting from your comment that you may be making some errors in how you map modern concepts onto the biblical text. For example, “orientation” is not equivalent to either sex acts or lust. It refers, rather, to a person’s pattern of mostly involuntary attractions over time. Insofar as those attractions are voluntarily turned into something more, the category of “lust” may be applicable, depending on what precisely is meant by “something more.” However, insofar as we’re talking about the part relating to sexual acts, the category of “temptation” is a better classification for the involuntary stuff.

      If we make an incorrect mapping of modern concepts to what the Bible talks about, we actually take the Bible to say something other than what it actually does. This is an easy error to make, but a bad one. I think the intermixing of good and bad teaching is often a contributing factor to people’s decision to abandon things that are actually true. In my comment I also pointed to particular claims, like the claim that gay people are pedophiles and the claim that people choose their orientation, that are not true but that are often intermixed with the traditional teaching on sexual ethics.

      What I did point out was that we need to do more to respond to people’s questions rather than just shooting them down. I alluded to some points made in a post by my friend, but I’ll summarize here. When Paul wrote his various letters, he often addressed the question of circumcision in some detail. He didn’t simply say “you don’t need to be circumcised” and leave it at that, because circumcision was a big issue to his original audience. However, he didn’t find the need to give the same letter of detail to his discussion on homosexuality, because that wasn’t a topic of contentious division at the time. However, now that it is, we ought to take more of our cues from Paul’s approach to circumcision than to his approach to homosexuality. That means unpacking various themes from the Bible – Ron (the author of that post) listed “creation, providence, marriage, celibacy, sin, redemption, resurrection, etc.” as examples – rather than simply pointing to a moral statement and saying “end of story.”

      We also need to do more to think through what biblical teaching means practically for those living with a non-heterosexual orientation. For example, there are certain issues that come up being not attracted to the opposite sex in a society that sees marriage as the only way we are called to live, a view that contradicts Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7, for instance, but a common one in the evangelical Church. And then there are the various ways that sexually active LGBT people have been victimized in our society much the way the prostitutes and tax collectors were in Jesus’s day. We must be careful that our own approach is not more like that of the scribes and Pharisees than that of Jesus.

      It’s also inconsistent to point out the Genesis passage you did in response to gay marriage but not to divorce and remarriage, when in fact Jesus used that very passage in response to a question about divorce and remarriage (Matthew 19 again). This relates closely to Scott C.’s question – why is it less of a problem to reject Jesus’s use of that passage against divorce and remarriage (in most circumstances) than to reject its less direct use against gay marriage?

      So let’s listen to the whole of what the Word of God says, not just the parts that directly relate to homosexuality.

      Reply
  6. LizBR

     

    Zeke, yes that’s why I said the Bible has very *little* to say on lesbian sex. That verse is pretty much it, and I’d say it’s less than a conclusive condemnation of all female-female sexual activity.

    Reply
  7. Josh

     

    Hi Jim,

    You mention that the shift in sexual morality has not been driven by rational arguments. Perhaps that is true. But is that, all by itself, a good reason to be suspicious of the shift in norms? Not obviously. I suppose it would be a reason to be suspicious if, in order to rationally believe something, one had to believe on the basis of good arguments. But we both agree that rational belief needn’t always be based on good arguments. I do not see, therefore, that the mere absence of good arguments would be sufficient to warrant our suspicion.

    But even if the culture is unable to articulate good arguments for the moral acceptability of homosexuality, such arguments might nevertheless exist. In fact, the moral acceptability of homosexuality seems to be supported by quite a few of the major ethical theories. For instance, there is no reason to think that homosexuality is morally unacceptable from a utilitarian point of view. But I doubt that you find utilitarianism to be very plausible. I don’t. So what about the others?

    I see no reason why a Kantian should be deeply suspicious of homosexuality. Kantians are chiefly concerned with respecting humanity, which is the capacity to adopt and pursue ends. They believe that we should act only on the basis of principles that express respect for this capacity wherever it is present. Some principles clearly do not respect the capacity to adopt and pursue ends. The principle “I will lie to others when doing so is to my advantage” disrespects humanity, since a world in which this principle is a universal law is a world in which trust, and therefore human cooperation, is moribund. But a world without trust and human cooperation is a world in which our ability to adopt and pursue our goals is greatly diminished, since we often require the cooperation of others to pursue our ends. Do homosexual relationships similarly disrespect the capacity to adopt and pursue ends? Well of course some of them might, but they don’t always seem to. Someone might, for instance, enter a homosexual relationship because she and her partner romantically love each other and find that being together enriches their lives. A principle that endorses such a decision needn’t thereby disrespect the humanity in any person. A world in which everyone enters into and sustains a loving homosexual relationship if they find that doing so enriches their lives is not a world in which our capacity to adopt and pursue our ends is undermined. (Notice that such a world would not necessarily be a world in which everyone participated in homosexual relationships, since clearly not everyone would find their lives enriched by such relationships. The objection that such a world would be a world of universal infertility, therefore, does not even get off the ground. But even if it did, the objection rests on a mistake. Respecting humanity does not, according to Kantians, require that we maximize the number of people with the capacity for humanity. Respecting humanity instead simply requires that we do not violate the humanity of any actually existing subject who possesses it. In this way, respecting humanity is like respecting excellent art. Respecting excellent art does not require that one maximize the amount of art in the world. It does, however, require that one not act contemptuously toward any excellent art that already exists.) The case against homosexuality from a Kantian perspective, therefore, strikes me as incredibly weak.

    The case against homosexuality does not become any stronger from a contractarian point of view. There is no reason to think that either from a Hobbesian or a Rawlsian perspective, homosexuality would be categorically condemned. Nor is it at all obvious that virtue ethics delivers a categorical condemnation of homosexual relationships. Homosexual relationships, after all, needn’t involve any of the vices that virtue ethicists tend to denounce. They needn’t, merely in virtue of being homosexual relationships, involve selfishness, greed, dishonesty, disrespect, callousness, contempt, disregard for others, or any other nefarious vice. Someone might object that procreation is constitutive of the human teleology, and that homosexuality involves a lifestyle that inhibits rather than promotes procreation. But surely the Christian does not wish to infer from this that it is immoral to live a lifestyle that does not involve procreation. Jesus, after all, lived a lifestyle that failed to involve procreation, and Christians tend to think that Jesus was morally perfect. So, either virtue ethics condemns lifestyles that do not involve procreation, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then it’s far from clear that virtue ethics categorically condemns homosexuality. If it does, then it is inconsistent with Christianity and so is not a perspective Christians can adopt anyway.

    What about natural law theory? It must be admitted that there is not a single natural law theory. But despite the differences, I suspect that most natural law theories will entail that we ought never to act contrary to a good, where the goods include things like life, society, and knowledge. I’ve never been very clear on what it means to act contrary to a good. (This might be my own fault, though.) Is the idea that we ought never to do anything the intention of which is to destroy or diminish an instance of some good? But what good are homosexual couples intending to destroy or diminish by sustaining their relationships? It is exceedingly implausible to think that, merely in virtue of being in a homosexual relationship, one is thereby committed to performing an act the intention of which is to destroy the good of life, knowledge, or society. But what about the good of procreation? Are homosexuals acting contrary to this good? Well, they might be using their sexual organs for something other than their primary, natural purpose, which we can assume to be procreation. But that by itself poses no problems at all, since there is no duty to only use organs for their natural purpose. The natural purpose of the ear might be to hear, but if we wiggle our ears to make children laugh, we do not thereby do anything wrong. The natural lawyer might protest, “But someone who wiggles their ears merely uses their ears for something other than hearing, but does not thereby do violence to the ear’s capacity to hear. Homosexual sex, however, does not simply involve using one’s sexual organs for a purpose other than their natural purpose. It involves using them in a way that does violence to the natural purpose of the reproductive organs, namely procreation.”

    I’m not very confident that I even understand what is being claimed any more. How exactly is the natural lawyer distinguishing using an organ for a purpose other than its natural purpose and using it in a way that does violence to the natural purpose? Is the idea that we do violence to the natural purpose of an organ if we do something to it that undermines its ability to carry out its function? If that is what we mean, then homosexual sex clearly does not do violence to the sexual organs, since the sexual organs do not suddenly become incapable of carrying out reproductive functions if they are used to engage in homosexual sex. (What homosexual sex does to one’s ability to reproduce is not, for instance, similar to what poking one’s eyes out does to one’s ability to see.) Is the idea that we do violence to an organ if we use it in such a way that we intend that the organ not accomplish its natural function? But why think that homosexual couples are intending that their sexual acts be non-procreative? Of course, they probably know that the acts aren’t procreative. But that doesn’t mean that they intend them to not be procreative. I know, for example, that if I try to play the piano excellently, I will fail, but it does not follow that I am intending to fail. Similarly, even if homosexual couples know that their sexual acts won’t result in procreation, it does not at all follow that they intend that their acts not result in procreation. Perhaps there are good answers to these questions. If so, I’m not sure what they are; but maybe that is just my own fault.

    In a certain sense, however, I don’t think it very much matters how exactly natural lawyers are thinking of doing violence to the function of an organ. The reason is simply that I don’t think there is any duty to never do violence to an organ, on any sensible interpretation of doing violence to an organ. Suppose I could cure blindness for all future generations, but doing so required (for whatever reason you please) that I permanently blind myself. This would be an act of violence against the function of my eyes, if anything would. But it would not be wrong of me to blind myself in this circumstance, as far as I can tell. Or suppose I could cure infertility, but doing so required (for whatever reason you please) that I render myself infertile. I cannot see that it would be immoral for me to render myself infertile for these reasons. If the best argument against homosexuality is that it does violence to the function of an organ and such violence is always wrong, then that convinces me that there probably aren’t any very good arguments against homosexuality after all.

    So I guess my reaction to natural law theory (of the sort that would categorically condemn homosexuality) is that when I feel like I understand it, it seems implausible to me, and when it does not seem implausible to me, that’s largely because I’m unsure of what it is even asserting.

    Among philosophers at least, I am not surprised that they tend to think homosexuality is acceptable. It’s not because they are mostly relativists and postmodernists. My impression is that most of them are neither. Instead, I think it’s because they are convinced that there just aren’t any very good reasons to think homosexuality is immoral, and I agree with them about that.

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      Josh, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’m surprised you don’t see the need for good arguments to overcome the uniform conviction of nearly 2000 years of Church history. Yes, as you note, I believe there are many beliefs that don’t require arguments or justifying reasons to be rational (e.g., belief in other minds or that there is an external world), but beliefs that appear to defy the plain teaching of Scripture and which have never been defended by a major Christian ethicist or theologian are surely in a different category. In fact, from the standpoint of Christian theology, sexual pluralism would seem to be a paradigm case of a view which bears a significant evidential burden.

      Reply
      • Josh

         

        I agree that the epistemic situation is probably very different for (some) Christians with respect to this issue than non-Christians. For the Christian, church tradition will probably carry at least some epistemic force, at least more so than for the non-Christian. When I made my comment about belief without arguments, I had only non-Christians in mind. I should also clarify that I did not mean to assert that we should not be suspicious of those who take a non-traditional stance without arguments (nor did I mean to assert the contrary). I was simply inquiring into why we should, given that not all belief without arguments is suspect.

        My main contention is that I doubt very seriously that the proscription against homosexuality is a deliverance of unaided reason. From the perspective of unaided reason, I think there is but one reaction available to the categorical condemnation of homosexuality–bafflement. There just doesn’t seem to be anything in principle wrong with homosexual relationships. As I said in my previous comment, they are not necessarily the source of great misery (so utilitarians won’t disapprove), they needn’t involve disrespecting the humanity of any person (so Kantians won’t disapprove), they don’t require that one break the system of rules that perfectly free, rational, and equal people would agree to abide by (so contractarians won’t disapprove), and they aren’t essentially connected with any vice (so virtue ethics don’t disapprove, unless they take the non-Christian view that it is a vice to not procreate).

        Those who categorically condemn homosexuality, therefore, seem left with only two options: natural law theory and divine revelation. Since we’re now considering unaided reason, that leaves us with only natural law. But for the reasons I gave, I find natural law theory (or at least the versions that I have seen used to categorically condemn homosexuality) to be implausible. I am not a utilitarian, but I can at least understand why someone would think morality is about maximizing happiness. I am not a Kantian, but I can at least understand why someone would think morality is most fundamentally about respecting dignity. What I find hard to understand, however, is why we would think that morality is most fundamentally (or at any level) about making sure that the function of bodily organs is never impeded. When natural lawyers say that goods like life, knowledge, and society ought to be respected, that is something I can get behind. But I am mystified at the idea that the best way to respect life and family is to categorically forbid people from using contraception or engaging in non-procreative sexual acts. This seems no more plausible to me than the idea that the best way to respect truth is to categorically forbid people from lying. Not every lie expresses contempt for the truth (e.g. lies told in order to save lives), and not every non-procreative sexual act expresses contempt for life or family (e.g. using contraception to prevent the spread of an STD or to prevent pregnancy after one has already had many children).

        So it seems to me that those who categorically condemn homosexuality will get little help from unaided reason. They will have to rely almost entirely on divine revelation and the authority of tradition to support a view that, from the perspective of unaided reason and human sympathy, seems both implausible and harmful. I can understand, therefore, why Christians who are interested in integrating faith and reason are reconsidering the traditional view on these matters.

        Reply
  8. Rebekah

     

    I believe in the authority of the Bible and the importance of obedience, but I have a hard time approaching this issue from such a doctrinal/philosophical point of view. I suppose this just makes me a fluffy moral relativist, but, like Jeremy mentions, people’s views do change based on the experience of knowing people, and I don’t think this is inherently a bad thing. I have worked for over 8 years with children in foster care/out of home placement. The majority of these children have been abused and/or neglected. Almost all of the girls have been sexually abused or molested. A lot of them have sexual ideas and orientations that are not “biblical.” (disclaimer: I’m not saying that most people who are gay have been sexually abused or vice versa…just saying that people have all sorts of ideas about sex and SOMETIMES those subconscious and based in wounds that are extremely painful and deep). I just cannot fathom that God would say to a child who has been through what some of these children have been through that they are condemned to a lonely life because they are attracted to/feel safer with the same sex. I’ve come to the conclusion, that if some of these kids can form healthy, loving, respectful relationships with someone of the same sex, I will support them and be happy for them. Maybe that makes me a moral relativist, but I’d rather err on the side of grace and love than of sticking too closely to the letter of the law (which I believe is vague at best) and hurting people in the name of Christ.

    Reply
    • Jeremy Erickson

       

      I find that understandable. I think a big part of why I’ve continued to hold to a traditional understanding of sexual ethics is that I’ve been a part of a community that is discussing these things with an eye to how our doctrine affects people and that hasn’t just been an abstract theological discussion. I’ve been discussing issues around sexuality with a group that consists primarily of LGBT Christians who are trying to live according to traditional sexual ethics, although there are a handful of straight people who have been active in the discussions as well. The current most public face of this conversation is the blog Spiritual Friendship (http://spiritualfriendship.org), to which I’m a contributor. I think there are ways that the “traditional” evangelical responses to LGBT people have seriously failed those LGBT people, but I think there’s hope for a way forward that stays faithful to traditional teaching.

      There’s a common assumption in evangelical circles that you are either get married, or you are going to struggle with an inordinate amount of loneliness. I think part of the reason for this assumption is that in our industrialized, individualistic, mobile, post-sexual-revolution culture, that’s how it plays out for many people. I think that another reason is that modern evangelicals often look only at the last 500 years of Protestant history regarding celibacy, mostly ignoring the previous 1500 years of Church history, and thus do not take celibate vocations seriously. This feeds back into the first problem, in that there isn’t much Protestant thinking about how abundance and fulfillment can exist within celibacy, and there isn’t much motivation to deal with the practical issues. The result is also a “failure of imagine” regarding abundant life within celibacy, as my friend Matt Jones put it (http://spiritualfriendship.org/2014/01/15/a-church-of-pure-imagination/).

      Part of the reason the gay issue has blown up in our society is that it reveals a fundamental disconnect between how evangelicals typically imagine celibacy to work and how it ends up working in practice for gay and lesbian people. Furthermore, a lot of Christians aren’t aware of the immense pain caused by the insensitive manner in which they discuss LGBT issues, and by the false beliefs and assumptions they often harbor about LGBT people. When Christians get to know LGBT people, they usually come to realize the harm that has been done and often assume it is the inherent result of taking a non-affirming view. When non-affirming Christians reply to these quite practical issues with abstract theological proclamations, it only drives people away from taking the traditional view seriously.

      I think the real challenge for traditional people is not just to “stand firm” against a cultural onslaught, but to figure out how to make sure kids don’t find themselves “condemned to a lonely life” as an inherent result of living according to traditional convictions. That has to start with acknowledging reality as it exists today and repenting for ways that we as Christians with a traditional understanding of sexuality have sinned against LGBT people. I’m not saying I have all the answers by any means, but I’m glad to know a lot of people who are actively working to find them.

      Reply
  9. Gary Ross

     

    If Edwin Friedman is right in his assessment of American culture, it should come as no surprise that you are receiving criticism from your stand. According to Friedman, our culture’s chronic anxiety will naturally produce sabotage in the face of strong stands.

    This following story may initially seem somewhat off topic but bear with me. In what might appear to be an unrelated story about the latest Taylor University theatrical production, I believe we can find some useful information.

    A few weeks ago I had the privilege of watching the latest theatrical performance at Taylor University called the Miracle Worker. It’s a fascinating story (directed and performed very well, I might add) about Helen Keller, her teacher Annie, and their journey through the difficulties of trying to connect the outside world to Helen’s world in her own mind. Two themes jumped out immediately to me in the midst of the performance: tough love and immaturity.

    At a crucial point in the story, Annie takes Helen away from her parents for a two week hiatus in order to break her down so that she could build her back up again. When the hiatus was over and Helen was being reunited with her parents, she quickly began to exhibit the troubling behavior patterns that Annie had worked so hard to correct.

    The scene escalates to the point where a bewildered Annie, appropriately and with voice raised, asks whether the Kellers had ever considered that Helen’s egregious behavior was not the result of her being deaf, blind, and mute. Instead, she asks them to consider that Helen was essentially just a normal selfish girl, whose selfish bent resulted in tantrums when her desires were not met. Further, every time the parents, who were supposed to be the most mature in the relationship, catered to Helen, it was not only damaging to Helen and to the Kellers, but also to her siblings and servants in the house. The most immature among them was setting the agenda, and that is never a good thing.

    Annie’s eventual tough love overcomes Helen’s immaturity and wins the day in the end. She sticks with it, literally clawing and fighting with Helen until finally, perhaps miraculously, Helen submits to Annie. She actually begins to “see” the world the way it really is with an ability to communicate with those around her. It was Annie’s strong stand, and her refusal to be overly empathetic towards Helen, that freed Helen from her self-centered tantrums and as a result freed her family from the consequences of Helen’s selfish behavior.

    Now, having said all of that, I can’t help but think that those who hold to a traditional sexual ethic have found themselves in a similar situation to Annie. The most mature in the greater American family (those who hold to a traditional sexual ethic….you in this case) are being attacked (perhaps that language is too strong, perhaps not) by the most immature among us (those who whole to the homosexual agenda).

    Let me elaborate. I would argue that what we see consistently from those who would seek to replace the traditional Judeo-Christian sexual ethic is an immaturity made manifest in two main ways. First, as any culture seeks to balance various forces for togetherness and individuality that constantly test our ability to live in community, there are certain behaviors that simply don’t work in community. We design consequences for such behaviors. One could argue the Ten Commandments are in some sense a response to the tensions that come from individuality and togetherness.

    In our case, the agenda to replace the traditional sexual ethic with one that approves of homosexual behavior and other forms of sexual deviancy proves to be immature in the sense that sexual deviancy of any kind (be it pedophilia, adultery, homosexuality) not only breaks down families, it breaks down culture. (see Jim Nelson’s book When Nations Die for a detailed explanation of how cultures throughout time have broken down when sexual deviancies have become normalized).

    Put differently, if homosexual behavior were to be universalized (without the introduction of artificial insemination) our species would be extinct in a generation. In some sense, isn’t that what it means to be immature? Doesn’t immature behavior result in one’s demise?

    Second, the way in which those who argue for sexual pluralism respond to not getting their way is akin to Helen Keller’s tantrums. Indeed, those heavily promoting that agenda have often times acted like young children who haven’t gotten their way. Those who stand up to the sexual pluralist agenda receive the predictable fits and threats. Is this not what we see when we examine the recent HGTV cancellation and the somewhat recent Duck Dynasty controversy? It was only when the majority stood up in the Duck Dynasty situation and demanded the show be back on the air that indeed the networks listened. (I submit that there have been plenty of immature responses by those who hold to the traditional sexual ethic, but the stance itself, and the way in which you specifically responded, I believe are mature.)

    This response too will no doubt receive great resistance to the extent that it is read, but in an anxious and schizophrenic culture where togetherness and conversation seem to be among the greatest virtues, I humbly suggest that what might be needed is not an increased dialogue in the way that so many desire, but instead a shutting down of the conversation in the interest of what is best for the group. Indeed, while our culture may perceive this response to be unloving, I believe it to be just the opposite. As a parent and a coach, I consistently see that those under my watch will only rise to the level that I demand they reach. It’s because I care for my children and my players that I don’t let them throw tantrums. If I didn’t love them, I would let them do what they wanted.

    Two final notes: First, none of what is written above means I am not sensitive to the plight of dealing with sinful tendencies. As a woefully sinful man myself, I understand what it means to have to put sinful desires at bay in the interest of holiness and healthy community. I think we are all called to that consistently in the scriptures.

    Second, despite what is written above, and despite my belief that tough love is the answer to stamping out immaturity, it’s never easy. Welcome to parenting and welcome to leadership. Further, taking a position of tough love doesn’t mean one acts with a callous judgmental disposition. Indeed, I believe empathy has its place. If the divine incarnation wasn’t at least partially an empathetic stance towards humanity, then I would be greatly surprised. However, I don’t ever see Christ’s empathy trumping his call to love. Often I think Christians inappropriately equate the two.

    Reply
    • Jeremy Erickson

       

      I’m not sure whether I’m one of the people you had in mind, since your comment went up a week after this post went up, and a few hours after my editorial hit the Echo. I’m guessing your reading comprehension is better than that, given that I have repeatedly stated my position as someone who holds to the traditional sexual ethic. So I’m probably not who you were thinking of, but I do still have some concerns about your arguments.

      I’m well acquainted with the cultural pressure surrounding views on sexual ethics. I am a graduate student at a large public university, and I’m about to work for one of the most gay-friendly companies in the country. I’ve had to weigh the cost of being open about my Christian beliefs and adherence to the traditional sexual ethic. At the same time, I’ve also had to weigh the cost of being open about the fact that I happen to be LGBT (in my case bisexual) rather than straight, in the sense of my attractions. Being open about the same sort of thing has cost at least six of my friends jobs in Christian institutions, even though they were all living celibate lives in accordance with their convictions and the doctrinal statements of these institutions. So I’m well acquainted with taking a stand or counting the cost. That’s something I’ve had to face from both the Christian world and the secular world.

      I’m hesitant to be too harsh against LGBT people who don’t share my convictions, since it seems to me that part of their response to Christians is due in part to facing the same sort of anti-LGBT attitudes and refusal to listen that contributed to the unjust employment discrimination that some of my celibate gay Christian friends have faced. When misinformation about LGBT people is as widespread as it is in the Christian world, I think we have some of our own internal problems to fight. This doesn’t mean that we need to back down from our moral stance, but it does mean that we can’t just shut down conversation. And it means that when we talk about sin and morality, we must consider our own sins against LGBT people rather than assuming we have everything right.

      A big concern I have about the opening post, and part of the reason I was motivated to write a response to it, is that I think it actually pushes people away from the traditional sexual ethic. The problem is that it makes arguments that fail spectacularly when used on people who are familiar with the broader debate around sexuality and the cultural context we currently inhabit. I don’t think this is inherent in the traditional view, but when we make bad arguments, it makes people less likely to take what we have to say seriously. So that means we need to do the hard work of making sure we present good arguments.

      Your post itself has one particular argument I find seriously problematic. You argue that if everyone practiced homosexuality, our society would die. The problem with this argument can be seen by substituting “celibacy” for “homosexuality.” Celibacy was the sexual lifestyle of both Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul, but it would be seriously problematic to then claim that Jesus and Paul were immature. You’re not the first person to make that sort of argument, but that doesn’t make it less problematic. We must be careful not to accept bad arguments just because they happen to lead to a conclusion that coheres with Scripture and Christian tradition.

      And in terms of the whole question of “immaturity,” we do have to realize that we’re talking about a sizeable portion of the population (probably around the ballpark of 3%) who find themselves sexually attracted only to the same sex, and that even the most optimistic studies basically never show more than a quarter of these people developing feelings for the opposite sex with any approach. Some of these people are among the most mature people I know, with a sincere desire to follow Christ at whatever the cost. However, their situation leaves us with pastoral questions we cannot ignore. Do we ask people to get married to someone they have no sexual attraction toward, given the likely reality that they may never develop such attraction? Do we hold them to lifelong celibacy? If we hold people to lifelong celibacy, what must we do to bear one another’s burdens given the difficulty of that calling? Simply stating a sexual ethic and then expecting people to follow it with no further guidance seems to lead a lot of people to despair and in some cases even suicide. These are the real issues that those of us with a traditional ethic need to think through.

      Reply

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