I have weighed in on the continuing debate on same sex marriage on a number of occasions on this blog. As I have done this, I have generally sought to distinguish that debate, which is primarily about the meaning of marriage, from the debate about the morality of homosexual practice and the nature and import of homosexual identity. That debate has its own time and place and recognizing the distinct issues raised by the two debates is essential if we are to think clearly about some of the topical questions that we face. Within this post, I intend to speak a bit more clearly to the debate about homosexual practice and identity.
I believe that there is much to be gained from an intensive engagement with the questions raised by the contemporary gay rights movement and would love to see thinking Christians really attempting to grapple with the issues on all sides of these debates. Rather than just stubbornly defending traditional positions, or rapidly shifting with the times, I think that it is important that we tarry with the troubling questions that are thrown up in this area. Rather than rushing to resolve the unsettling and painful cognitive dissonance that we feel, jumping to comforting solutions that depend much upon wilful blindness, ignorance, or inconsistency for their plausibility, I believe that we must seek to wrestle with the full measure of the cognitive dissonance, not shrinking back from the most difficult questions, even seeking to discover the tough questions that we could ask of ourselves that no one else is asking us.
If we don’t shrink from such questions and are prepared to venture into the very heart of the dark and unsettling uncertainty that they raise, we have the opportunity to learn much, tempering our understandings, taking valid criticisms on board, strengthening certain convictions, while highlighting problematic assumptions. This sort of questioning will require of us a willingness to engage with the most challenging and thoughtful interlocutors, and to ask tough and uncompromising questions of ourselves, when no one else is doing so.
When thinking through issues, I have running debates with myself, constantly searching out new questions to ask myself, looking for new interlocutors, and seeking to discover areas of tension or inconsistency in my thinking and practice. Much of the time I have been disappointed to find, on all sides of such debates, a reluctance to engage with the tough questions, and a preference to remain in broadly ideologically homogeneous groups, whose echo chambers leave our convictions untroubled.
The purpose of this post is to list a few example questions for those who do not affirm homosexuality and homosexual practice and to give an invitation for you to add some of the questions that you find most unsettling on these subjects, or the questions that you would be most keen to hear those who hold such a position answer. This isn’t the place where any of these questions will be answered. We need to hear and to feel their force before we even begin to think about answering them. Within a follow up post, I will ask some questions for those from other positions.
1. Homosexuality as we experience it today is a distinctively modern phenomenon in numerous respects, with a social character that differs from that of any previous society. To what extent should the Church seek understanding through hermeneutic engagement with the distinctive character of contemporary homosexuality, and to what extent should the ‘newness’ and unprecedented character of modern homosexuality be downplayed? Does this distinctive character of contemporary homosexual identity and practice provide any basis upon which to mitigate the apparent biblical condemnations of homosexual practice, or to distinguish between it and the forms condemned in the Scriptures?
2. Rather than merely reacting to the apparent challenges that the gay community poses to the Church, how can we digest the issues that are raised, both theoretically and practically, in a manner that represents growth on the part of the Church? What are some of the things that we might have to gain from engaging with these questions? How might such a change of posture in relationship to the questions change the sorts of positions that we arrive at, the way that we ask the questions, or the way that we arrive at conclusions?
3. The gay rights movement involves a shared persecuted identity that transcends differences of class, nationality, etc. The movement has been characterized by suffering with those persecuted in various parts of the world, by identification with the marginalized in society. The gay community is seen as a place of acceptance and welcome. Coming out stories can closely resemble evangelical conversion narratives, and reflection upon the principles undergirding shared identity is perhaps most pronounced among Christians and the LGBT community. What are we to make of such potential parallels to the Church? How might reflection upon areas of contrast and parallel help to inform the Church’s sense of its identity? Even if affirming homosexual practice is never going to be on the cards, what lessons might God be teaching us as the Church here? How might such analogies be explored as means for mutual understanding and communication?
4. How are we to understand the severity of the biblical condemnation of and punishment for homosexual practice and emotionally reconcile it with sensibilities that have been shaped by the experience of LGBT friends and family members in committed and seemingly loving relationships? Reading the story of Sodom, Romans 1, and other such passages, one gets the sense of a sort of rapacious homosexuality, an impression that can jar with the impression that one gets from actually witnessing the lives of many LGBT friends. How can we argue that these biblical texts are speaking to the homosexual relationships that we are witnessing? How ought we to reflect upon just how stark the disjunction between the biblical witness and our personal experience often is in such areas?
5. What is the place of people with homoerotic desires within the Church? How might their struggle with such desires serve as a ministry to the body, and how might the body minister to them in that struggle? How might the Church create a place for LGBT persons where they can thrive in terms of what we regard to be scriptural principles? How is the Church to perceive the identity of those with homoerotic desires, in a society where the concept of ‘orientation’ is given so much importance? What alternative categories and language can we bring to the description of something that is clearly more complicated than just a choice?
6. How should the Church relate to the questions raised by sexual appetite and desire? Paul suggests marriage for those who cannot exercise self-control in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, admitting the strength of sexual desire and the good of marrying when remaining unmarried would expose us to unsustainable temptation. Such an option would only frustrate homosexuals and make their struggle worse. What means are provided for such individuals to resist temptation, and gain mastery over their sexual desire?
7. If we believe that God’s condemnation of homosexual practice are not just arbitrary and capricious, but are in accordance with created reality and ordered towards our good, what rationale can we provide for such harsh condemnation of consensual acts?
8. Modern sexual ethics, such as that encouraged by people like Dan Savage, gives a lot of significance to ‘realistic’ sexual ethics, recognizing the problematic and untidy character of sexual tastes and appetites and observing the problems resulting from not coming to terms with one’s sexuality. If coming to terms with your sexuality is this important, the common Christian expectation that people remain virgins until marriage can seem to be a recipe for disaster – mismatched libidos, unsatisfied fetishes, sexual frustration, and troubling areas of sexual desire that come to the surface as the terrain of sexuality becomes more familiar, matters that can rock the marriage bed, or cause it to collapse. Many gay Christians have faced a struggle to come to terms with and understand the nature of their sexuality in a context where happy marital heterosexuality is the presumed norm. Not a few of these people have ended up in marriages in which they feel trapped and frustrated, exposing all parties involved to the risk of incredible pain and bitterness. In a culture that values chastity and modesty, and opposes sexual practice outside of marriage, how do we reckon with the issues raised here? Without creating an idol of sexuality, how do we prepare young people and couples to navigate the complicated and treacherous terrain of sexuality and sexual desire? How do we respond to the ‘realistic’ sexual ethic of those who advocate sexual experimentation for individuals and pre-marital sex for couples as a necessary means to come to terms with sexual desire and form happy couples?
9. As Christians, how should we respond to the fact that homoerotic desires (and possibly paedophiliac desires too) likely have some sort of biological grounding? How do we relate this to our doctrines of creation, humanity, and sin?
10. As gender and sexuality issues impinge so powerfully upon subjective identity, especially within our society, do we have the theological resources graciously to address persons for whom a sexuality or gender identification we might deem disordered is integral to who they understand themselves to be?
11. How should Christians relate to LGBT persons outside of the Church? Should we encourage provisions to be made for those who cannot remain abstinent in the face of overwhelming homosexual desire, to limit the damage that they may cause to themselves and others? When the social marginalization and stigmatization of homosexuality encourages risky and dangerous sexual behaviour or widespread promiscuity, should we seek to provide social forms for more committed and durable relationships to be established, relationships that exhibit a number of the virtues that we might associate with marriage, curbing some of the dangerous tendencies that might attend homosexual practice?
12. How should Christians relate to the gay rights movement’s claims to key civil rights? Adoption? Access to reproductive technology? Legal provision for civil unions? Marriage? Protection from discrimination in the provision of services and in employment? Protection from ‘hate language’? Removing public funds from groups that discriminate? To what extent must a Christian commitment to public meaning and truth oppose the gay rights movement in such areas, maintaining differential treatment in the realm of the law and society? Are there any areas relating to civil rights where Christians should be at the forefront? Should Christians give up the fight for public truth and meaning in situations where they are doomed to lose the battle and be pushed into a position of having to make damaging concessions? Should we tactically abandon a debate framed in terms of public meaning, and recast the debate in terms of liberty for various parties, something that we stand to lose less from, both in public reputation and religious freedoms?
13. How should Christians address the ugly history and present reality of homophobia in the Church? Do we even have the right to speak into these debates? If we do, how would we argue for the existence of such a right? How can we speak into current debates without providing refuge or support to those with a personal animus against LGBT persons?
14. How are we to relate to ‘gay Christians’? How can we recognize the genuineness of someone’s faith while they are persisting without repentance in activity that the Scriptures appear to class as sin of a great degree, but which they do not perceive as sinful or morally compromised at all? Are there any clear precedents for this sort of issue? How should we respond to such serious sin of ignorance?
15. How are we to appropriate the Old Testament civil law and sexual regulations? Can we just shrug off the fact that practising homosexuals seem to have been sentenced to death under the Mosaic Law? If homosexuality remains such a serious sin under the new covenant, should we support a movement towards criminalizing and punishing practising homosexuals in the long run, even though we might deny the legitimacy of the death penalty for it in the context of contemporary society and the new covenant order?
Is the fact that few Christians are advocating this merely an effect of the present location of the Overton window, or are there principled arguments against it? To what extent do Christians dissemble the ultimate trajectories of their positions given the sensitivity of the current social and political situation, just as they accuse the gay rights movement of doing?
Are we guilty of the exact same selectivity as that of which we accuse Christians supportive of gay rights, when we fail to apply certain elements of Old Testament sexual legislation, such as that forbidding sexual relations with a menstrual woman? What principles are guiding our appropriation of the Old Testament Law here?
16. What form should the conversation surrounding homosexual practice take? Should a conversation be entered into, or does this compromise our witness by treating homosexual practice as if it could be entertained as a ‘thinkable’ option? To what extent should we be seeking to be attentive to the self-reported experience and perception of practising gay Christians? To what extent should our language be condemnatory, when such language might hurt or alienate vulnerable Christians? Is there a way in which we can speak clearly against the justification of homosexual practice, while maintaining a deep sympathy and support for those who are struggling?
17. How are we to relate to the questions of nature that this debate throws up? How ought we to relate to the person who perceives himself to be a homosexual and ‘born that way’, unable to change, no matter how much he tries? Should engagement with such people clarify our understanding of what is ‘natural’ in any way?
18. Should the Church support the use of therapy designed to change people’s orientations, when such therapy has often seemed to be ineffective and deeply damaging in the long run? What lessons can the Church learn from engaging with the academic literature on this subject?
19. As Christians, how do we treat the ‘exception’, while maintaining biblical norms? For instance, how ought we to relate to the intersexed, who under some definitions make up over 1% of live births? The biology of a number of these individuals would seem to many to write them out of the script. I think that many regard the person who experiences exclusively homoerotic desire in a similar way, and feel that they must be excluded for that reason.
In biblical teaching, the exceptional figure can be sometimes be treated as the paradigmatic case of the reversals characteristic of the kingdom. The kingdom of God is most clearly seen through the lens of such figures as the eunuch, the barren woman, the Gentile, or the extreme sinner. Could it be that some of the paradigm cases of the kingdom in our day and age are intersexed persons or those Christians with homosexual desires? Does the church need to work to rediscover its character as the place of the exceptions, rather than merely underwriting the status of the norms? Passages such as Isaiah 56 speak of the inclusion of exceptions such as the eunuch: how might such inclusion be practically reflected in our treatment of homosexuals? How might the ‘exceptions’ teach the Church about its own identity?
20. Does the Church’s privileging of the family lead to a forgetfulness of the vocation of singleness, deep friendship, and a loss of resources with which LGBT might be ministered to?
21. How can we clearly frame God’s condemnation of homosexual practice by the grace and goodness of the gospel? If homosexual practice is inconsistent with God’s good ends for humanity, how might deeper acquaintance with those good ends help us to demonstrate that homosexual relationships are rightly avoided for the sake of some richer and greater?
OK, so those are a few suggested questions to get things going. Leave your own questions in the comments!