Response to Hannon on Heterosexuality

Over on Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Lee Anderson has written a helpful response to Michael Hannon’s recent First Things piece ‘Against Heterosexuality’.

I read Hannon’s piece over a week ago and had a number of concerns about it when I did so. While I share Hannon’s reservations about much orientation discourse, I was surprised to see so many people loudly praising his article, as it seemed to me that there were a number of serious flaws in it. For instance, even though Hannon observes the manner in which ‘orientation’ conversations shift ‘attention from objective purposes to subjective passions,’ it seemed to me that the article invited the notion of a sort of natural ‘queerness’, an ambivalence to our sexuality that is only settled as our sexual behaviours are related to some appropriate extrinsic end.

Identities and orientations are increasingly subjectivized, rooted solely in our passions and private self-understandings. The fact that, for instance, possession of a male body makes one a man and orients you to the other sex, irrespective of the—potentially disordered—orientation of one’s subjective desires and sense of one’s gender, is forgotten. The fact that being subjectively ordered in such a manner is normal and not merely common is also forgotten.

Matt writes:

Hannon’s claim emphasizes those who take ownership of the “heterosexual” label: his polemic is against those who are “self-proclaimed” as or people who are “identifying as” heterosexuals. But few heterosexuals think of their own sexual identity the way those with same-sex attraction tend to think of themselves *as* gay or lesbian. Their majority sexuality is simply the tacit backdrop on which people live out their lives rather than that-by-which they are differentiated.

My friend John Corvino will sometimes talk about heterosexual folks who take a line akin to “it’s fine if gay folks do their think, so long as they don’t flaunt it in public.” Only “flaunt it” happens to mean holding hands, or kissing, or doing what opposite-sex couples do in public all the time. Many heterosexual folks don’t feel the asymmetry, as we are unaware of the extent to which sexuality structures our lives outside the bedroom. But that also means the emergence of heterosexual desires in a person lacks the same kind of formative power that the emergence of opposite-sex desires often has. I doubt most “heterosexuals” would ever recognize themselves in the term, at least not without: they don’t need to, precisely because being a part of the “normal group” frees them from the burden of self-ascription.

In certain respects, these points tie in with my previous post about personal stories. The difference between orientation for a ‘heterosexual’ and a ‘homosexual’ could be described as the difference between two different types of stories. As Matt astutely observes, the cisgender ‘heterosexual’ doesn’t experience this identity as a self-ascription, as this identity is narrated for him from without and he merely enters into it. By contrast, the LGBT person locates their identity primarily in a story that they tell themselves about themselves. And that, as I suggested, can be problematic in a number of different ways. The inviolability of a person’s ‘orientation’ and ‘identity’ is not unrelated to a peculiarly contemporary approach to the status of the personal narrative, something which excludes any form of determination or challenge to our autonomy, including that of our very bodies.

While it is essential to recognize the pain and difficulty that can be involved in holding one’s identity in its most intimate dimensions exposed to judgment and questioning, and that this pain will be felt more keenly by some, this is a path that we are all called to take. We will best be equipped to bear the heavier burdens of others with them if we are walking the same way ourselves. One of the dangers in prevailing identity discourse is that Christians with different gender or sexual ‘identities’ or ‘orientations’, while appreciating the unique character of others’ struggles, may through an overemphasis upon this lose contact with those who would otherwise be known as examples, fellow-travellers, supporters, and friends in the common path of holiness.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Sex and Sexuality, The Blogosphere, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Response to Hannon on Heterosexuality

  1. Matthew N. Petersen says:

    I don’t have time to link to it now, but what do you think of Joshua Gonnerman’s self identification as gay?

    • I have questions and concerns about the way that identities function in our society more generally and how LGBT+ identities focus in particular. The amount of weight placed upon particular dimensions of identity troubles me. That said, these are broader cultural problems and cannot simply be placed at a single individual’s door.

      The contemporary language of ‘orientation’, much as Hannon’s rejection of it, seems to operate in terms of a sort of queerness at the root of sexuality, where difference could never mean ‘disorientation’. When people speak of ‘gay’ identity more generally within the culture, it tends to be against this conceptual backdrop. It also tends to be an identity that places a lot of emphasis upon internal states of desire over objective states of action and nature. There is also a lot of resistance to determination by other parties and a sort of narcissism of small differences that can be introduced. I would be very cautious about throwing our lot in with this.

      All of this said, I think that I can understand why, in our cultural context and that of its conceptual categories, Joshua Gonnerman and the folks over at Spiritual Friendship, for instance, would identify as ‘gay’. I greatly admire their work and what they are standing for and, while I might question the prudence of some of the ways that they employ the term ‘gay’, my concern is generally more that they are stretching cultural categories beyond breaking point, in a manner that might impede, rather than facilitate, communication.

  2. Steven Wedgeworth has just commented on the piece here.

  3. Bobby says:

    I just came across your piece as I was looking at the ways in which folks were interacting with Hannon’s article.

    You (and Anderson) seem to be drawing an inference from Hannon’s thesis that’s not entirely warranted. I don’t think that Hannon is arguing for queerness as a natural pre-Fall condition that finds root in the created order. Rather, he’s attacking the faulty way in which Christians–including Anderson–isolate sexual orientation from a host of other factors that play into our post-Fall sexuality and treat that single factor as though it was central to the way in which Adam and Eve were united in Genesis 2. Anderson leaves no doubt that he believes this when he asserts that heteronormativity is implicit in the logic of Scripture.

    Hannon is not suggesting that queerness is instead at the center. To the contrary, he is suggesting that, besides the categories of “man” and “woman,” there is nothing that we can confidently identify as having passed through the Fall unscathed. Anderson argues rather unpersuasively that heteronormativity somehow has. But I see no Scriptural support for that. There are countless ways in which the Fall has causes the two not to become one flesh. A misalignment in couple’s generalized sexual attractions (orientations) are one such way. But there are countless others. As a general proposition, none of these factors should disqualify anyone from entering into marriage. That’s Hannon’s point. After all, couples with somewhat misaligned orientations may be able to relate better in other ways, while couples with better aligned orientations will have difficulties in other areas. This isn’t a queering of anything. It’s simply a recognition that the Fall mars the possibilities of marital bliss in countless ways, and that God nevertheless calls man and woman to enter into that institution and to rely on His grace to hold them together.

    This is not the approach that conservative Protestants have generally taken. Rather, they have supposed–as Anderson does–that generalized sexual attraction is more essential to marital bliss than other factors and have even gone as far to suggest–as Anderson does–that this was also central to the way that Adam and Eve experienced union in Genesis 2. Thus, conservative Protestants like Anderson have felt justified in singling out gay people as somehow uniquely disqualified to participate in the institution of marriage as God designed it. Cut off, then, from the possibility of marrying someone of the opposite sex, is it any wonder that gay people seek to marry each other?

    Hannon isn’t proposing that we’re all inherently queer. Rather, he’s supposing that sin is pervasive and that it mars every aspect of who we are, and that there is no aspect of our lives that can be isolated and held out as exemplary of humanity’s pre-Fall condition.

    • No one in this debate disagrees with the claim that none of our sexual desires pass through the Fall unscathed. The issue at stake is whether the Fall is a complete erasure of the pre-Fall condition and the ordering of the man to the woman.

      • Bobby says:

        What makes you confident that you know anything about the way Adam and Eve related to each other in Genesis 2? The Fall may not effect an erasure of the pre-Fall condition. But neither does anything pass through uncorrupted. We have only the slightest clue what Adam and Eve may have experienced in their union before the Fall. Therefore, I find it pretty ridiculous to suggest with confidence–as Anderson does–that we know that they experienced generalized sexual attractions in a manner like us. How can you even know that? In the pre-Fall state where everything is perfectly aligned and unified, how can you even know that such attractions exist? After all, various factors, such as sexual attraction, only become evident via their misalignment with other factors, e.g., in the way that generalized sexual attractions are often in tension with fidelity to the one to whom you’re betrothed. It strikes me as pretty dubious to suggest that such tension was present before the Fall but that Adam and Eve were just morally equipped to resolve it seamlessly.

        I’m not exactly sure what “debate” you’re referring to. I’d suggest that our difference primarily lies in the degree to which we believe that the Fall has marred the human condition. You and Anderson appear to take a rather optimistic view of the Fall, seeing it as having tainted things a bit, but leaving the larger imprint of the pre-Fall condition largely intact. I would respectfully dissent from that view.

        In his Commentary on Genesis, Calvin writes, “[F]or we please and flatter ourselves to such an extent, that we do not perceive how fatal is the contagion of sin, and what depravity pervades all our senses. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the judgment of God, which pronounces man to be so enslaved by sin that he can bring forth nothing sound and sincere.”

      • Sexual attraction to a person of the other sex is celebrated as a good thing in Scripture, in such places as the Song of Solomon. This contrasts with the treatment of homosexual desires in Romans 1 and elsewhere, which are treated as lusts that go against the ‘natural use’ of the other sex. The more general ‘orientation’ dimension of sexual attraction can also be a good thing: it is an appropriate attraction to our sexual counterparts, a desire that corresponds to the ‘natural use’. Even before Adam had personal knowledge of Eve, he recognized that she was an appropriate mate for him. In his act of calling her ‘Woman’, he was identifying her kind and declaring the appropriateness of that kind for him as a sexual partner.

        There is nothing inherently sinful in a desire for that which is good or in generalized desire. It was entirely appropriate for Adam and Eve to recognize the fact that the fruit of the forbidden tree appeared good for food, pleasant to the eyes, and desirable to make one wise (a little attention to biblical theology should reveal that God almost certainly intended for them to eat of it one day, when the time was right). The sin would come from coveting, lusting after, or taking the fruit before it was given to them. Likewise, there was no sin involved in Jesus’ natural desire for the bread that Satan tempted him to produce from a stone. The fact that it was wrong for him to make the bread does not mean that he had no sense of a natural hunger for it (and that, consequently, the temptation wasn’t really a temptation at all). General appetites are not necessarily corrupt.

        It is good that we feel hunger, thirst, tiredness, and sexual desire, when these appetites are directed towards the sorts of things that were naturally designed to satisfy them. Problems arise when these appetites are directed towards things that were not naturally designed to satisfy them. If I were to feel hunger for stones, that would be a problem. Likewise, sexual desire for persons of the same sex is a distortion. However, feeling ordinately hungry for bread or feeling sexual desire for a person of the other sex is entirely appropriate. Lust and covetous desire are not the same as general sexual desire. General sexual desire in its good form recognizes the goodness of a person of the other sex for sexual relations. It is completely appropriate to be attracted to one’s fiancée, for instance, even though sexual relations would not yet be biblically permitted. The Scripture can speak of such desire in positive terms. There is no more sin in being aware of the sexual attractiveness of another person’s spouse than there is in noticing that his or her lunch looks very tasty, provided that no lust, coveting, or adultery occurs.

        It is the failure adequately to register this distinction that is a major issue here. The sexual desires of every one of us are affected throughout by the Fall. However, it is not the case that all of us are affected to the same degree or in the same manner. The general sexual desire for the other sex experienced by ‘heterosexuals’ is affected throughout by sin. However, even though it constantly and consistently falls short of a proper ordering towards the ‘natural use’ of the other sex, it is not ordered so contrary to it as in the case of homosexuality. Neither Anderson nor I have contradicted Calvin’s remarks, but these are very important distinctions.

      • Bobby says:

        Thanks for clarifying.

        I agree that the Fall has affected our sexuality in any variety of ways. We seem to differ, however, on whether there’s value in parsing those out and identifying one of those ways, generalized sexual attraction, as being the sine qua non of what marriage is all about. Further, to the extent that Adam may have experienced sexual attractions in a manner like us, he experienced them in a way such that they were directed to Eve alone and not to women generally. That’s not the case with us. So, once we’re married, generalized sexual attractions can just as likely lead us to marital infidelity as to marital bliss.

        For that reason, I strenuously object to Anderson’s project of sorting people out into categories of straight and gay and establishing systems that privilege the former at the expense of the latter. Moreover, I find it particularly outrageous to suggest, as Anderson does, that Scripture justifies such systemic and invidious discrimination against gay people, both inside and outside of the church. After all, I’m old enough to remember a day when American evangelicals by in large believed that privileging Caucasians at the expense of other races was also implicit in the logic of Scripture.

        I believe that marriage within the church ought to be limited to one man and one woman. But I see no reason to graft modernist pseudo-science, like the “science” of sexual orientation, onto that. And I certainly see no reason to take Anderson’s lead in supposing that such pseudo-science is inherent in the logic of Scripture. I see Anderson’s thesis as no less stupid than the suggestion that we should privilege INTPs at the expense of ESFJs, and that Scripture supports such efforts. After all, Jesus was surely a P, while his critics were Js, right?

        American evangelicals, like Anderson, do find themselves in something of a quandary, however. Unlike American Catholics, evangelicals have generally embraced modernist revisions to the institution of marriage. Now they’re stuck with the task of concocting a theology that justifies opposition to same-sex marriage and concomitantly takes a blind eye to things like contraceptive use, non-procreative sex, no-fault divorce, and the like. n that sense, I’d guess that Anderson’s position on “homosexuality” has more to do with the desire to prop up the failed evangelical experiment than to remain faithful to the logic of Scripture.

      • Bobby, I strongly suggest that you reread Anderson’s post carefully. I really don’t think that this discussion will get anywhere so long as we are discussing what is a gross misreading of his position.

      • Bobby says:

        I read it again. To be honest, I’m not sure what he’s trying to say. The injection of foundationalist concepts seems to muddy the water. Foundationalism has been dead for a decade or more; I see no reason to revive it. Anderson’s critique would make more sense if he proffered it within a Foucauldian framework. As a legal scholar, I don’t run much in theological circles (although I studied Barth and Moltmann in my undergraduate theology class). But there are certainly few vestiges of foundationalism left at top conservative divinity schools in the US, such as Yale, Princeton, and Duke. I don’t see why it would be any different at Oxford. After all, isn’t Graham Ward now at Oxford?

        Anderson’s argument may make some sense within a foundationalist context. I just see no reason to rely on an epistemological framework, such as foundationalism, that has been so thoroughly debunked.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Some of the problematic aspects of positing that a pre-fall sexuality involves just attraction to one individual. The orientation of the male towards the female is good in general. When we marry, we aren’t just entering an individual to individual relationship, but enacting a specific instance of a larger pattern. Our attraction to the opposite sex in general is part of what teaches us that male is oriented to female in general, and teaches us that the attraction of others to their mates is a good thing.

        Also, when we are single, there is no specific member of the opposite sex that we are supposed to be oriented towards. They are all potential mates. So, it is good that we are attracted to them in general. Even when we are married, they remain potential mates, as our current spouse is a mortal being.

        All of these are reasons why the Bible does seem to treat attraction to the opposite sex as a good thing in itself.

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