Podcast: The Transgender Question

Mere Fidelity

This week’s Mere Fidelity podcast is our second discussion around the themes of Oliver O’Donovan’s book Begotten or Made? In this episode, we take up the subject of transsexualism, taking the second chapter of the book and O’Donovan’s Grove booklet Transsexualism: Issues and Argument as our starting point.

I have just listened through the podcast again and realized that I made a number of points in the course of the conversation which probably need much more unpacking than I could provide within the time constraints. The following are a few further thoughts on the subject and an elaboration of certain points that I made in the podcast discussion.

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Something that I have long found interesting about transsexualism is that, although it is represented within the T of LGBT, relatively speaking it is so seldom discussed, even though it raises distinct questions of its own. For many commentators, LGBT identities come as a package deal and the vindication or condemnation of the second initial is sufficient basis for accepting or rejecting all of the others. While such an approach may be more understandable in the case of the L and the B, it is not so obvious in the case of the T (or of some of the other letters that are included).

A further interesting facet of transsexualism is that the transsexual subject so often regards him or herself as sexually determined in a dimorphic, male-female pattern. This raises some interesting questions for sexuality and gender theorists. First of all, as O’Donovan observes, such transsexualism bears witness to the principle of psychosomatic unity, to the relationship between sex and gender. On one level, there is something radically non-‘performative’ (inverting Judith Butler’s terminology) or constative about the transsexual’s self-conception: the transsexual wants to be what they feel that they are. The acute gender dysphoria that some transsexual persons can experience weighs against more extreme accounts of constructivism or performativity, challenging them with the notion that gender may not be as arbitrary and contingent as they think. Perhaps, contra de Beauvoir, there is a degree to which a person is ‘born a woman’.

Second, the phenomenon of transsexualism poses uncomfortable questions to much feminist and gender theory. Although we are more accustomed to questioning the causes of the extreme disjunction between gender identification and body experienced by some transsexual persons, it is important to recognize that this phenomenon intensifies the question of why so few of us experience such a disjunction. Transsexualism reveals that the conjunction of gender identity and body that most of us experience is a phenomenon meriting an explanation. While many feminists and gender theorists make much of the power of the relatively arbitrary social construction of gender, through its norms, messages, and assigned positions and roles, transsexualism problematizes and pushes back against this. If social construction is such a powerful process, why has it failed so catastrophically in such cases? A further explanation or mechanism must be sought to account for why social construction of gender ‘works’ for most people: what is it that differentiates such persons from those for whom it fails? If the transsexual person’s gender identity and body don’t naturally ‘fit’, what is the ‘fit’ between body and gender for the rest of us? Richard Beck raised similar questions from the case of homosexuality recently here.

Third, while many Christians may believe that transsexualism represents a problematic identity within their theological systems, it should be increasingly clear that they are far from alone in regarding it as such. I have already suggested some of the tensions that exist between transsexual identities and certain forms of queer and third wave feminist thought (even among those who would affirm transsexual identities). However, transsexuals pose different and more sharply defined problems for many second wave feminists, who are less on board with queer theory and the unworking of the gender binary. Feminists such as Germaine Greer (such feminists are often popularly referred to with the pejorative term TERFs—‘trans* exclusionary radical feminists’) have argued that the acceptance of male to female transsexuals as women results from a ridiculous notion that the removal of male organs is enough to constitute a body as female, as if womanhood could be achieved through the mere negation of manhood.

We should not be surprised that feminists who seek to take seriously the phenomenological reality of women’s bodies and the particular shape of the oppression that they believe that women are subjected to precisely within that reality should baulk at the idea of recognizing male to female transsexuals as women, even post-operation. The transsexual person lacks the natural woman’s formative and continuing experience of her body. The transsexual person experiences neither menstruation nor menopause. They have no womb and have bodies that are totally unrelated to the bearing of life. Their breasts bear little relation to the feeding of the nursing child, serving more as a sexual marker and manifestation of sexuality. Anyone who wishes to take the distinct phenomenology of the female body seriously will struggle to accept the male to female transsexual as a woman.

O’Donovan comments further upon the anomalous character of the ‘self-perceived gender identity’ of the transsexual, observing the manner in which it can float fairly free of ‘all other aspects of psychosexual orientation.’ Few transsexuals can easily act in their assumed gender ‘without a trace of staginess’. They may be sexually attracted to persons of their assumed sex, so that their choice of sexual partner corresponds to their biological sex. They also take many of the tendencies of their biological sex into their assumed sex. O’Donovan concludes:

Gender-identity, then, is not correlated with any other form of psychosexual measurement; cross-gender-identification is an anomaly that stands on its own. There is nothing, therefore, that the male-to-female transsexual can really be said to know about himself; certainly not that he has a feminine psychology…. All that can be said of him is that he has ‘feminine gender identity,’ which tells us what we already know, that he feels himself to be a woman.

Finally, it is interesting to observe that, despite the tensions that exist between transsexualism and other forms of gay, queer, and feminist thought, most people who fall into these camps will affirm transsexualism. When positions that exist in a measure of tension—though not necessarily contradiction—with a person’s theoretical stance on gender are so readily accommodated, it suggests the presence of a deeper affinity. In this particular case, it seems to me that the deeper affinity is found in the primacy of individual self-determination within the emancipatory narrative of liberalism. Theory is ultimately subservient to the realization of this goal. While theory can deconstructively push back against the rule of the norms of nature and culture, it is not permitted to be used to ‘police’ other people’s self-determined identities, even though they may be at odds with it.

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O’Donovan speaks of the ‘artificializing of sexual differentiation’, the placing of our sex into the realm of our personal choosing. When we present our sexual identities as a matter of will, open to technological determination, we can come to regard even our ‘natural’ sex as a ‘special case of artifice’, an instance where we have decided to let nature run its course because it will arrive at our preferred destination.

From this observation, O’Donovan proceeds to argue that this will be accompanied by the placing of sexual relationships into the sphere of ‘play’. Although there will always be a dimension of play to sexual relations, ‘the element of play is limited by the ‘natural’ ends of marriage, its ordering to procreation, to self-control, and to permanence.’ However, when sexual relations are cut loose from their natural ends, ‘the element of play predominates.’

At this juncture, I believe that O’Donovan’s analysis could be developed further with a distinction between different modes of play. For want of a better way of expressing it, ‘postmodern’ playfulness surrounding sex and gender is an ‘artificializing’ play, as O’Donovan describes. For theorists such as Judith Butler, while certainly not entirely changeable or fluid, gender itself is artificial, parodic, and ‘performative’ and its unstable character can be exposed through subversive forms of ‘drag’. In this ‘play’, depths are revealed to be illusions created by the flux of surfaces and distinctions formerly regarded as certain—male/female, gay/straight, masculine/feminine, etc.—are exposed as radically contingent. This play is subversive and deconstructive.

There is a sort of ‘premodern’ playfulness that stands over against this. Rather than a playfulness of anarchic subversion of any supposed natural order, this is a playfulness of elevation, an ecstatic activity through which we are revealed to be part of something greater than ourselves. While Butler’s performative subject, for instance, subversively plays in the universal instability of a flattened discourse, this alternative playful subject is ‘caught up’ in a deeper and a higher playfulness.

C.S. Lewis discusses this in his book The Four Loves. In friendship, Lewis argues, each person stands for themselves. However, in the act of love we stand for more than ourselves. The man and the woman cease to be just two individuals, but for a brief window of time represent far greater realities. Masculinity and femininity, the ‘universal He and She’, the ‘Sky-Father’ and ‘Earth-Mother’ are ‘momentarily focused’ in the couple. This identification, however, is held in check by the buffoonery of the ‘Ass’ of the body (Lewis here references St Francis’ description of his body as ‘Brother Ass’), with its clumsiness and obstinacy and its frequent reminder of our animal nature. However, this comedy is no less part of the ‘play’ into which we are caught up. As our bodies play their natural and often messy, ungainly, stubborn, and ridiculous parts in copulative relations, we are participants in an act that is at once both profoundly animal and mysteriously ‘spiritual’.

This form of playfulness is not subjectively generated. Rather, it occurs as we are ‘caught up’ into a dance of life and meaning that exceeds us and in which we come to exceed ourselves. It occurs as the bodies of man and woman participate in an act in which they are temporarily united into a larger whole in the natural procreative play of flesh and as they themselves are united as husband and wife, participants in a sort of ‘play’ in which a pale shadow of the mystery of Christ and the Church is seen.

Contemporary accounts of sex and gender tend to proceed with little attention to the reality of procreative bodily relations, nor to the symbolic force of Man and Woman as related yet distinct modes of human personhood in relation, with corresponding realms of shared subjectivity, albeit of unclear contours. Detached from these overarching processes and realities, sexuality and gender become properties of the abstracted individual instead, cut loose from any part in a greater drama, the author of his own autonomous narrative of self-realization, achieved through self-projection, rather than true participation.

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In this chapter, O’Donovan speaks of how the man-woman relationship is ‘protected from debasement and loss of mutuality by the fact that it is fruitful for procreation.’ He continues:

When erotic relationships between the sexes are conceived merely as relationships—with no further implications, no ‘end’ within the purposes of nature—then they lack the significance which they need if they are to be undertaken responsibly. They become simply a profound form of play, undertaken for the joy of the thing alone, and depending upon the mutual satisfaction with each partner affords the other for their continuing justification. The honouring of each partner by the other must be founded on the honour which the relationship itself claims, by serving a fundamental good of the human race.

Here I am reminded of the analysis of Paul Kahn, in his stimulating book, Putting Liberalism in Its Place. Kahn’s discussion of pornography, romance, and the politics of the family is quite perceptive, and has bearing upon the issues that O’Donovan raises at this juncture. Kahn observes that ‘pornographic’ sexuality involves a vision of freedom, founded upon a series of three absences. The first absence is that of children, as sex is cut off from procreation and its reproductive consequences. The second absence is that of the state. By cutting off sex from the bearing of children and the formation of the family, the body is released from the state’s claim upon it. The third absence is of economic labour, the market, and consequent socio-economic distinctions. The pornographic body is the sole possession of the individual, over against ‘family, government, and markets’. The pornographic is also ‘episodic’, producing no enduring relationship and without lasting consequences.

Kahn recognizes that the pornographic sexuality he has described has a great deal in common with our notion of romance. Like the pornographic, the romantic is also cut loose from the production of history and the institutions that achieve this. The romantic couple are caught in a binary pair, lost in their own reflections in the other’s eyes. As Kahn observes, in the romantic ‘there is no turn toward generation of either a new familial order or a new political order.’

Liberalism has established a sharp public/private distinction and takes the individual as its primary unit of explanation. The problem for liberalism is that of accounting for the reality of the natural family. As I’ve written in the past:

For liberal thought, with the autonomous and undifferentiated right-bearing individual as the primary unit of explanation, the realities represented by the family and children in particular pose immense problems and cannot easily be processed. A ‘one flesh’ union that expresses sexual difference, the ordering of male and female bodies to each other, and has the natural capacity to produce a new public reality, imposing an identity onto persons born into a ground level aneconomic order of gift that both precedes and transcends the political, just breaks too many of liberalism’s rules.…

One could in fact argue that the paradigmatic family of liberal ideology is the same-sex couple with adopted children or children born through reproductive technology, a family of purely volitional attachments (every child is chosen) between undifferentiated individual sexual agents for whom gender need not be stipulated, creating a privatized realm of sentimental bonds, where bodies are clearly autonomous and all relationships boil down to romantic or emotional attachment adumbrated by contract.

The connection between sex and procreation gives sexual relations between men and women their dignity and significance. Even for couples who are infertile, the act that they participate in can implicate them in a reality, natural process, and human project that transcends them.

Receiving the male and femaleness of our bodies and the naturalness of the male-female relation involves a recognition that our bodies are not our sole possession, but serve natural human goods, create greater realities, and are productive and expressive of a meaning beyond ourselves. In the sort of relation that exists between a man and a woman, there is a natural opening out onto realities beyond them. This natural opening prevents the relationship from becoming dislodged from the creation of history and its formative institutions. Through its establishment of an ‘intrusive party’—whether in the form of a child, in the horizon represented by the possibility of procreation (even if frustrated), or the natural and symbolic import of the male-female relation—it protects the couple from falling into the romantic or pornographic form and the effacing of the person that can occur in such a situation (see Peter Leithart’s stimulating discussion of this here).

It should be clear that the understanding precludes the transsexual route. O’Donovan suggests that it is ‘an extreme case of the liberal pursuit of unconstrained freedom in the private realm,’ establishing ‘a wide existential playground in which there is no objective reason for doing or being one thing rather than another, but in which one can exercise ingenuity for the sake of fuller self-exploration and self-disclosure.’ It wilfully cuts itself off from the potential of participation in the natural ends of sexual relationship, within which we express greater realities, and construes sex and sexual relationship as principally realms of self-expression instead.

Much more could be said, but for now I will leave it on that point.

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, Culture, Ethics, Podcasts, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

52 Responses to Podcast: The Transgender Question

  1. Enjoyed the podcast and this post.

    The transgender question isn’t one I’ve thought much about but to the extent that I have your quotation of O’Donovan on gender-identities correlation with a form psychosexual measurement seems to me to be important.

    It’s hard to understand how a transgender person is epistemically justified in their belief since they do not know the opposite sex as an embodied subject of that sex, only as object. Their knowledge of the opposite sex is third person not first. A transgender person might be able to say ‘I want to be…’ as an expression of desire but I don’t see how they can say ‘I am…’

    • I think that is an important point. One’s subjectivity is bound up in many ways with the physical reality of one’s sexed body in many ways. This issue is relevant to discussions of pre-op transgendered teens sharing changing rooms, for instance. This is not inappropriately felt as invasive by others, as it admits the intrusive gaze of one who is of a different sexual ‘kind’. We all have a sense that the phenomenological relationship that such a person has with the body of our sex is quite different from that experienced by the rest of us.

      Perhaps one could suggest the analogy of a person who completely changes the colour of their skin from white to black. Even though skin colour doesn’t have anything like the same biological capacity to shape our sense of self as one’s sex, it is nonetheless associated with identities, social and political scripts, histories, and body conceptions that have considerable formative power. The relationship with one’s race experienced by those who have grown up with a particular skin colour is quite different from those who might assume a different race. A new racial identity can’t simply be assumed like this.

      • I think that’s right, Your analogy is a good one. I don’t think the point even requires a description of how one’s subjectivity is bound up with the physical reality of sexual embodiment, only that it is. For it would seem to be a necessary condition for the transgender person’s claim to have a mismatched gender identity and sex.

        If it were not so – that subjectivity is bound up with the physical reality of sexual embodiment – then their claim couldn’t possibly be true. But if it is so, then arises the problem of epistemic justification. The transgendered person’s knowledge of the opposite sex is only ever second and third person, they have no knowledge, phenomenologically, of the first person perspective of such an embodiment. In this respect they lack crucial knowledge, they may know what a man or woman is but they do not know what it is to be a man (if a woman) or woman (if a man), but this is precisely what they must know.

        There’s a couple of possible replies I can think of in response to this but I’ll have to mull them over. I’m sure this kind of thing is addressed in the literature but I’m not read up in the subject.

  2. Ben Smith says:

    As ever your thoughts are detailed and convincing.

    I wonder though, what should this line of thinking do for a Christian view of contraception? Your second-to-last substantial paragraph suggests it wouldn’t be wrong to ‘frustrate’ the creation of a child, if I’m reading you correctly. But would this be a denial of what you’re seeking to affirm, that ‘natural’ sex is for procreation?

    As I’m sure you’re aware, many major church leaders of centuries past were against any form of contraception for the reason that it seeks to limit or control when and how many unique individuals God may want to create. They might have been wrong about that – i.e. God may be perfectly happy to let us determine the number and timing of individuals brought into existence or not. But it’s something worth musing over, either way. I think to a large extent our culture sees children as being a sort of generic resource to be drawn on when we’re in need of a certain type of fulfillment, or to be avoided when inconvenient. How far are heterosexual Christians who use contraception in fact participating in that mentality, instead of seeing each child as a unique individual who God has specific purposes for, regardless of the difficulties for the parents their existence may cause?

    • Thanks for the comment, Ben.

      The ‘frustration’ that I had in mind was through infertility, not contraception. Infertile yet non-contraceptive sexual relations maintain the ‘horizon’ I mentioned in a way that contraceptive sexual relations do not.

      I don’t take a Roman Catholic approach to contraception, with its rather narrow focus upon the discrete sexual act. A marriage can be open to bringing new life into the world without every sexual act having this character. I am unpersuaded that it is wrong per se, although I believe that it is morally complicating, shouldn’t be normalized, and should be avoided without good reasons. Non-contraceptive sexual intercourse is the consummative act of marriage, the full donation of the spouses’ bodies to each other. To the extent that contraception is normalized, resistance of this full gift is treated as the norm.

      • Ben Smith says:

        Thanks for your thoughts. I’m still thinking this one through.

        The most thorough book I’ve read on the issue, by the way, is Bryan Hodge’s ‘The Christian Case against Contraception’. As well as his own arguments, he collects some of the witness against the practice from protestants such as Luther and Calvin. His blog ‘Theological Sushi’ is well worth a look, too.

  3. Two thoughts:
    – the justifying of sexual relations by reference to procreation seems to be a form of ‘works righteousness’, whereas following through on the sense of play as primary to sexuality might lead to clearer links with grace and gift;
    – I find many of these conversations bedevilled by the assumption that ‘family’ = ‘nuclear family’, which is something that needs to be argued for.

    Stimulating article though, thanks.

    • Thanks for the comment, Sam. A few thoughts in response:

      First, with regard to your first remark, there are several different ways in which ‘the justifying of sexual relations by reference to procreation’ could be understood, some of them problematic, some others entirely legitimate. You would have to clarify the exact sense that you intend before I could remark upon it.

      I think that the idea of ‘works righteousness’, if we are to speak of it, is more appropriately related to the idea of so-called ‘reproductive rights’ and the relation to the child as a choice and project. This is especially the case with the use of IVF and other forms of artificial reproduction. O’Donovan observes that, in ordinary sexual relations, the child ‘is not the primary object of attention in that embrace which gave her her being’ and that this assures the child’s status as ‘begotten, not made’. By contrast, in artificial reproduction, the notion of our choice of and right to children comes to predominate, even to the extent of circumventing natural procreative relations altogether (especially in the case of same-sex couples). While the child received through ordinary sexual relations comes as a gift and divine blessing of fruitfulness into an act that has its own integrity—a man and a woman’s gift of their bodies to each other—artificial reproduction is an act that aims directly at obtaining the gift.

      The relationship between ‘play’ and gift and grace is an important one. However, here my distinction between the two forms of ‘play’ I identified is important. To receive the gift and grace, we must accept the ‘given’. The gift of new life, the gift of standing for more than ourselves in sexual union, the gift of being caught up in the mystery of marriage, the gift of realizing the natural telos of our sexed bodies: all of these depend upon accepting the givenness of human sexual dimorphism, to be expressed in union between man and woman, and bestowed with the divine gift and blessing of fruitfulness.

      For grace and gift to work, there is a need to recognize the giver and the gift as things that are other to us. Without this, the so-called ‘gift’ becomes something that we claim as a right and a matter in which we assert our own autonomy. A true gift, however, comes to us from without and must be accepted on its own terms. The ‘gift’ and ‘grace’ of marriage is seen in God’s gift of the woman and the man to each other, his gift of a natural physical union between the two in the bodies that he gave to them, and his gift of new life within such a union. To know the ‘grace’ of marriage is to receive and rejoice in this gift that he has given, to the extent that they are presented to us as individuals and we are able to enjoy them.

      Yes, the assumption that the family is the nuclear family is indeed a serious problem here. The ‘family’ as Kahn and I speak of it is considerably greater than the ‘nuclear family’, which is more closely related to the sentimentalized and privatized view of the family that I describe in speaking of liberal conceptions of family. The ‘family’ that I am discussing cannot just be placed on the ‘private’ side of liberalism’s public/private divide, nor can it be retained within a domestic realm of consumption. It is an intergenerational and extended reality. It is productive of public communal life. It is the bearer and transmitter of its own legacy and culture. Its bonds are not principally sentimental, but provide an objective foundation for and source of identities. The family is an organic unity, not just a group of individuals who relate. It is a productive reality, in procreation, the formation of persons, and in economic activity. It isn’t just a legal construct for the emotional reality of ‘love’, but its institutional character adumbrates deep natural bonds: the sexual union between husband and wife, the bond between parents and their biological children, the bonds between siblings, etc. The family is not immanent to the horizons of our social and political realities, but brings us into contact with human realities that transcend us and our institutions: with procreation, the meaning of our sexed bodies, sexual difference and the union between male and female, the bonds of blood, the succession of the generations, the profound natural bond between a mother and her child, and that between the child and its father.

  4. Matt Petersen says:

    Are you familiar with Eva Illouz’s Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism? Do you have any thoughts on it?

    http://www.powells.com/biblio/65-9780520205710-1

  5. Wade McKenzie says:

    It is inconceivable to me that any fortitudinous Christian could treat the issue of “transgender” with the equanimity with which it has been treated here. Transsexuals–who are just glorified transvestites (the use of the term “transgender” betrays an allegiance to regnant political orthodoxy and to the mediocre virtue of liberality)–are utterly loathsome perverts who deserve no more consideration than do pedophiles. A just society would arrest, prosecute, and punish transsexuals with long-term imprisonment. Upon release from prison, they would be subjected to lifelong police supervision and be made to live in restricted areas (as are pedophiles). In fact, that might be a far too liberal approach to dealing with these monstrous individuals. Whatever the case, it should be an absolute imperative to remove these odious people from our midst, not to perform some misguided outreach to these criminally perverse and evil persons.
    Now, no doubt the proprietor of this website is going to denounce my intemperate language and forcefully and courageously inform me that a closer attention to scripture and wisdom dictate a more temperate approach. One might be forgiven for thinking that a closer attention to scripture would mandate that we refer to these sorts of persons as sodomites, that we forcefully deny that they can ever enter heaven; and even that we ought to contemplate the death penalty for these persons, thus hastening their doomed souls’ inevitable arrival in the hell of fire–but I mustn’t forget that we live in the twenty-first century and we don’t say such things in the twenty-first century, though they were said most clearly by the inspired word of scripture in the relatively benighted first century and the even more benighted first millennium before Christ.
    Yet I know that the proprietor of this website can’t be completely devoid of all recourse to Christian reason and scriptural wisdom, in spite of the fact that he is mightily in the grip of present-day sociopolitical fashions that never troubled Christendom through all the long centuries of its course until quite recently. He knows very well that Luther and Calvin–those great men of the Christian faith to whom none of us here can compare ourselves–would have had an attitude of horrified incomprehension to the monstrosity of so-called transsexuality and would never have contemplated treating it with anything other than absolute intolerance and persecution. Luther, after all, called for the destruction of the Jews and Calvin presided over the execution of Servetus. Our failure to manifest the same spirit of zeal as these great men of God in the face of such malignant evil is not at all due to our greater wisdom, but to our greater folly; not to our greater sensitivity to scripture (God forbid!), but to our greater effeminacy.

    • Although we quite clearly currently hold irreconcilable and vehemently opposed views on this issue, thank you for taking the time to comment.

      Please let us not forget that we are speaking of persons made in the image of God, to whom the gracious gospel of Christ is to be declared, just as you or I.

      I would be interested to know what you hope to achieve with this comment. If you have concerns, I am happy to have a conversation about them and to address questions you might have about my approach. You are perfectly at liberty to disagree intensely with my position. However, in my experience, such denunciations in comments seldom if ever produce anything but unedifying antagonism, hardening everyone in their positions. That would be a disappointment to me. I have no desire to fight with you, especially as I believe we could have a more effective conversation if we didn’t begin it by making such accusations.

      I hope you don’t mind if I ask you a question. How would you speak to a Christian teen who came to you speaking of feeling trapped in the body of their sex, and their inability to escape this? How would you address the grace of Christ to their situation?

      Blessings.

      • Your reply to Wade McKenzie is very gracious, Alastair.
        I would like Wade McKenzie to consider the (probably very unusual) experience of a dear friend of mine.
        She gave birth to a beautiful child whose gender was not clear, even to doctors. After much heart-searching, she agreed to some reconstructive surgery for her child. Having made that decision, she felt hopeful, but still uncertain.
        Sometimes – maybe often – empathy triumphs over judgement.
        1 Cor.13:13
        ‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’

      • Thanks for the comment. A devout Christian friend of mine, with whom I used to work, also had a child born intersexed. Life isn’t as tidy as we might want it to be and it is, I believe, important to recognize that, although we may have differences with the sorts of identities that some people pursue, some people face incredible struggles with their sexual identity, struggles from which the rest of us are mercifully spared. It is not our place to declare dismissive judgment upon them.

      • Wade McKenzie says:

        Alastair, I thank you for the graciousness of your reply to my intemperate comment and I’d like to apologize to you for the dismissive tone that it evinced.

        It cannot be denied that homosexuality–sodomy–is denounced throughout the Bible whenever it is mentioned. It is mentioned in Genesis, where God fire-bombs the homosexual city of Sodom (which city goes on to become the biblical figure of sin). It is mentioned in Revelation, where it is solemnly declared that no sodomite shall enter heaven. The Old Testament law pronounces an earthly death penalty for homosexuality and the New Testament pronounces a spiritual death penalty for same. One who reads the Bible attentively can only adopt an extremely negative view of homosexuality. As I said in my comment, so-called “transgendered” persons are homosexual transvestites who take their transvestitism to extraordinary and, I think, abominable lengths.

        It isn’t clear to me why our witness concerning homosexuality shouldn’t accord with the Biblical denunciation of homosexuality. I don’t see why we oughtn’t denounce it in intemperate terms, as does the Bible itself–terms that are intemperate only by the light of the past few decades, but which are a commonplace in Christian literature throughout the ages. Present-day Christians under the bewitching spell of the politicized virtue of liberality (tolerance, forbearance, indulgence) aren’t going to contemplate speaking of homosexuality in traditional (that is to say, intemperate) Christian language unless they see examples of others so doing. It is this example that I seek to supply.

        You may retort that my example on this line will be ineffective–in which case it may perhaps be the folly of an aging eccentric, albeit one which accords with the Biblical witness. Many modern people would say of the Bible itself that it is a piece of obsolete tomfoolery, as you well know. These are just comments on a blog and I would simply like to expose anyone who might be reading along to the possibility of an illiberal approach to this issue. The Bible, after all, is a deeply illiberal book. In the Pentateuch, God founds a regime and it isn’t a liberal democracy. It is instead the kind of theocracy that deeply offends the modern political sensibility. The New Testament regime is not a liberal democracy either, but an absolute monarchy whose monarch is a perfectly wise man–the Lord Jesus Christ–who shall wield absolute power.

        As for your question concerning the (hypothetical) young person, rest assured that in a *personal* case like that, my response would aspire to be liberal–that is to say, tolerant, forbearing, generous and benevolent. I have never denied that the virtue of liberality is indeed a virtue, albeit a mediocre one not to be compared with such exalted virtues as fortitude, wisdom or justice. My disagreement with the virtue of liberality has to do with its elevation by modern liberal democracy to the highest seat at the table of the virtues. In that place, it is perverted and it perverts in turn our moral and political order. There’s a difference, I’m sure you’ll grant, between having a forbearing personal relation to a troubled soul and engaging in heated political rhetoric as part of a battle for control of the social sphere as such. In such a situation as you envision, I would inform the person in question that in the blood of Christ, every sin–even the sin of transsexuality–is propitiated. I would be interested to hear what you yourself would tell such a one. I care about troubled sinners–like myself–who are placing their faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

        Nevertheless, I believe that when we enter into sociopolitical debate over the moral status of homosexuality, we should vigorously denounce it and deny that it is anything other than a social, moral and political evil.

      • Thank you for the response. I agree with you that liberality and tolerance should not be the values that trump everything else. I also agree with you that the Scriptures should be our guide when we speak to such matters.

        Where we disagree—and strongly, I believe—is in our understanding concerning how the scriptural witness is to be borne in our society. There are a number of issues here, and I don’t have time to get into them at the moment. One will suffice for now.

        You speak of ‘homosexuality’, but I don’t believe that the Scriptures speak of homosexuality as our society speaks of it. Rather, the Scripture speaks of various sexual acts between persons of the same sex. And, yes, it addresses such acts in very strong terms. However, it is very dangerous to take what the Scripture says about such acts and persons given over to them and apply it to a class of persons who experience intense unchosen desires to have relations—not just sexual—with persons of the same sex, which is exactly what you do when you speak about the sin of ‘homosexuality’.

        I know a number of godly and committed Christians who experience such desires. They believe that Scripture forbids such relations and do not engage in them (I know others who are uncertain or convinced otherwise). However, this can be a profound and painful struggle for them. Our commitment to the biblical witness on this matter should be borne in wisdom, grace, humility, and fear. We do not wish to put a stumbling block before anyone, lest we come under Christ’s judgment (the warnings of judgment here are no less stark). This should never mean compromising the Scriptures, but should rather involve the application of them with prudence and with a recognition of the sort of people and situations that we are addressing. Reading your remarks, I do not discern this caution, and that concerns me.

        I won’t have time to continue this discussion. However, my hope is that you reconsider the character of the situations that we are addressing and the way that the biblical witness is to be spoken into these. This, I believe, will require distinctions between wilful, high-handed sins and unwitting sins of ignorance, resulting from lack of knowledge or deception. It will also require distinctions between people who wilfully and knowingly pursue sin and those who struggle with and fall into sin. It involves recognition of the difference between commitment to a life of sin and having a psychosexual condition that predisposes one to certain sins, a condition that involves much more than this predisposition and which is often an inextricable dimension of one’s personality (something which can also predispose people to many good things).

      • Wade McKenzie says:

        Alastair, I thank you for your willingness politely to engage my view, in spite of disagreement, and I respect the fact that you won’t have time to continue the discussion. I’d like nonetheless briefly to reply to your last comment, if I may.

        It is true that the contemporary “gay” movement, contemporary “homosexuality” , has no strict parallel in antiquity or in the Bible–just as modern “Protestantism” has no strict parallel in the history of Christian antiquity. I’m afraid, however, that this is a distinction without a difference. The question is surely not whether the parallels are exact, but whether or not they are substantially similar. In the case of what you term “sex acts between persons of the same sex” it is clear that these actions, as well as the interior attitudes that motivate them, are substantially similar to what contemporary persons would term “gay” sex. I do not believe that you would be able to mount any sort of proof to refute what I’m saying, so it’s a good thing for your side of the argument that you don’t have the time to do so. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that two men having sex in antiquity is so very different from two men having sex in modernity that the biblical prohibition against the former no longer holds against the latter.

        (Next, you’ll be telling us that the biblical prohibition against bestiality doesn’t apply to modern instances thereof, because people in modern times have “feelings” and “desires” to perform such actions and they “struggle” to cope with these feelings, whereas the bible was only talking about “sex acts between a human being and a member of another species”.)

        I want to re-emphasize that my entire concern in this matter has to do with the political order, with state and society. I don’t want to live in a society where homosexuality–be it “gay romance” or mere sex between two men–is celebrated. I want to live in a society where homosexuality–be it “gay romance” or mere sex between two men–is prohibited. Homosexuality was prohibited in Christian Western society for some fifteen centuries until quite recently. I have said many times that the reason for this collapse of Western Christendom’s sexual morality is our elevation of the virtue of liberality over the virtues of wisdom and justice in the political realm. Thus, our present-day discourse concerning homosexuality must not defer to the virtue of liberality; that is to say, our discourse concerning homosexuality must be illiberal–which is to say, it must be derogatory and denunciatory. If we defer to the political virtue of liberality in our political discourse concerning homosexuality, we unwittingly collude in the ongoing erosion of Christian morality in the West. In fact, it’s clear to me that the battle is all but lost–but that doesn’t mean that we ought to be “useful idiots” who administer the coup de grâce to our own cause.

        I have put myself on record as saying that personal relations with individuals are an entirely separate matter. In those cases, I would be sympathetic and kind–not derogatory and denunciatory. The reason being that, in a personal relationship, the virtue of liberality has an appropriateness which it lacks in the sociopolitical realm.

  6. Hi Alastair,
    Thank you for your reply. I am very moved by it. Yes, most of us are spared such struggles.
    I did a bit of ‘homework’ on this today and found out from one article that there are about 30,000 people living in Britain who were born with ‘gender ambiguity’. It’s a very small minority, and yet a higher number than I had thought – I had never heard of it at all until my friend told me about her child.. and now I have heard about your friend’s child too.
    I’m not sure that I really understand the term ‘transgender’ properly, but I get the impression it is different from being born intersexed?

    • Yes, transgender is different from being born intersexed (a point O’Donovan emphasizes), although there are obviously overlapping issues involved.

      • Thank you – you have presented this in such a way that I want to know more about it.So far I’ve now checked out NHS Choices. I’m already familiar with cross-dressing and drag queens and I’ve heard of ‘gender reassignment treatment’ but had little idea what it entailed. Of course the ethics of this is another matter, but finding out some basic facts is a start!

  7. Hi Wade,
    Alastair has already given a clear and thoughtful reply to your most recent post and I can’t really add to it, but I would like to say something about ‘telling the truth in love’ from my own experience, in a context other than gender identity.
    My three children, now all adults, have always been good at putting me right when I’ve got something wrong and they do it in a way that doesn’t demolish me!
    One example that has come to mind as I read your post goes back to a time when I was driving to visit my sister with my (then) teenage daughter as passenger. Having turned off a large traffic island into what I thought was a side road, I realised to my horror that I was driving the wrong way up a dual carriageway. Fortunately, nothing was coming in the opposite direction My daughter said, ‘Get onto the central reservation!’ To this I replied,’But we aren’t supposed to drive on the central reservation!’ My daughter smiled sweetly and said,’Mu-um -your’e not supposed to drive the wrong way up the dual carriageway either.’
    She spoke the truth in love. We sorted it out fairly quickly with the help of my sister.
    I’m sure you get my drift.🙂
    Yes, the Bible gives clear guidelines about relationships, including sexual relationships, but there are loving ways of talking about ‘what’s what’ and ‘what’s not.’

  8. RobD says:

    Alastair,

    I have a couple of quick comments regarding what seems to me to be a rather hasty dismissal of queer theory.

    First, those who identify as “transgender” can vary. Some may be saying that their gender is the opposite of that generally associated with their sex. Others, however, are simply saying that their gender is closer to the opposite but not exactly aligned. While those who fall into the former category may call some of the insights of queer theory into question, those in the second category don’t. By contrast, those of us who identify as “gay” generally mean that our gender is closer to that generally associated with our sex than the opposite but still outside of boundaries defined by our social context.

    Second, I’m not sure why you assume that the all social constructions of the gender binary work for most people. That may be true in the UK, but I have my doubts for the US context, where acceptable gender roles are construed fairly narrowly, especially in evangelical circles. I suspect that many just go along to get along. I did that for a number of years; I came out of the closet because I grew tired of the evangelical culture’s tendency to cloak debunked Freudian notions of gender as “biblical manhood.” Just because people aren’t complaining doesn’t mean that they believe that the current situation is working.

    Third, thanks for including the link to Beck’s article. I have some concerns that Beck establishes something of a false dichotomy. Only a small minority of queer theorists assert that gender is 100% socially constructed. Most recognize that there are certain biological differences between men and women that have an effect on gender construction; but they recognize there’s also a strong element of social construction. After all, social constructions of masculinity vary quite a bit, even across various Christian societies (as we’ve amply discussed in another thread). So, while I agree that we can’t entirely discount biology; I don’t think we can dismiss social constructions either.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rob. Point by point in response:

      1. Where did I give a rather ‘hasty dismissal’ of queer theory? My direct engagement with queer theory was fairly limited in this post and generally incidental or secondary to my argument. The main points that I made about it are: a) that it is often in some theoretical tension, though perhaps not contradiction, with many forms of transsexual self-understanding (this shouldn’t really be that controversial a point to anyone familiar with debates surrounding gender theory), a tension that is maintained in a much more accommodating relation than one enjoyed with other forms of gender theory that might push back milder forms of such beliefs against queer theory’s own claims; b) that the sort of ‘play’ that it envisages in relation to sex/gender is categorically different from a sort of ‘play’ which exists in a more biblical understanding of sexual relations in marriage. I am not sure how either of these things constitute a ‘dismissal’ of queer theory, hasty or not.

      It should be clear that I do not agree with a great deal of queer theory. With Lewis, I am happy to speak of the ‘universal He and She’, for instance, an expression that would give many queer theorists conniptions. I am also quite happy to speak of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. People would be deeply mistaken if they believed that these expressions and terms held their primary force in my understanding at the level of gender presentation and norms. In using these terms, I allow for considerable variation in gender expression and relationship to social gender norms. ‘Masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ fundamentally refer to something deeper than the sort of things that register principally at the level of ‘personality’. However, articulating views that radically differ from much queer theory certainly needn’t mean that it has been ‘hastily dismissed’. Besides, it hasn’t been dismissed. I regard it as an important interlocutor, with many points that need to be given their weight in the conversation. This is quite consistent with strong disagreement with many of its conclusions. It is also consistent with the belief it is often perfectly appropriate to articulate positions it would take strong issue with, without believing that we must defend these claims before we have the right to do so.

      2. You will notice that, although the term ‘transgender’ is used of the title of the podcast, throughout this post and within the podcast itself, I only ever speak of ‘transsexual’ persons (O’Donovan’s discussion is only really about transsexualism too). I didn’t name the podcast, but as that was unfortunately the name given to it, I couldn’t rename it when I referred to it in the title of this post.

      In my use of the terms in question, I treat transgenderism or trans* as broader umbrella terms and transsexualism as a particular form involving the belief that one belongs to opposite sex than one’s birth sex, a conviction whose expression is facilitated by sex reassignment surgery. While there is plenty of inconsistency and variability in the use of these terms, this definition is fairly well established and conventional.

      3. I don’t assume that all social constructions of the gender binary work for all people. I don’t believe this at all. Where do you think that I suggest that I do?

      4. I share your concern with Beck’s article at that point. If you look at this recent comment you will see that I pointed out much the same thing myself:

      I suspect that both feminist/queer theorists and conservative Christians would take issue with his representation of the way that ‘choice’ functions within their thinking. For instance, whatever one may think of it, why must a claim that there is an element of choice in gender and sexuality entail that biology has ‘nothing to do with it’? Conversely, need recognition of a biological component entail that there is no volitional, cultural, or psychosexual developmental dimension involved?

      You should also notice that my statements about queer theory and the positions of theorists such as Judith Butler in the post above were all guarded on this point. I speak of ‘tension’ and distinguish that from ‘contradiction’ in the context of the opposition between biological and social constructivist accounts (and the tension here is very keen at some points—for instance, if biology has stacked the dice in favour of some form of patriarchy many feminist theories might be threatened).

      • RobD says:

        Thanks for the clarification. I think we may largely agree. There is a tendency in the humanities to suggest that everything is 100% social construction. The better approach lies along the lines of the work of Kuhn and Polanyi, which is given a fair bit of credence in the works of common-sense realists like Thomas Reid and his more recent prolocutors (e.g., Nick Wolterstorff).

        Of course, this realist approach still varies from what I often see in evangelical circles, where there seems to be an effort to argue that social construction plays no role at all. Again, this strikes me as one of the problems with idealism: It tends to take socially contingent conditions, strip them of their genealogy, and elevate them to the status of teleological ideals. In that sense, it’s no accident that the most vigorous proponents of Apartheid were ardent disciples of Dooyeweerdianism.

  9. RobD says:

    On a separate note…

    I’ve always been a bit confused by O’Donovan’s “teleological” brand of ethics. In general, the term is used to refer to a realist approach to ethics along the lines of Thomas Reid, Charles Sanders Pierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., etc. But when I read O’Donovan, I get the sense that he’s arguing more from an idealist (deontological) angle than from a realist angle. O’Donovan is also widely referenced by “Culture Warrior” types like Matthew Lee Anderson, whose ethics strikes me as pretty explicitly deontological. Do you have any insight into this?

    • O’Donovan is neither consequentialist, pragmatist, nor just deontological in his ethics. His ethics has a deontological element, as any good ethics should. It also has a teleological element, as any good ethics should. I’ll just quote O’Donovan at length from Resurrection and Moral Order (138-139) to make the point:

      ‘Teleological’ ethics … derives from the ontological conception of God as the summum bonum, in which it was the task of moral reasoning to recognize and respond to the ordered structures of being and good. ‘Teleological’ is not meant to be understood narrowly, as speaking only of a calculative, consequentialist morality, but in the way that we have ourselves used it, pointing to any kind of propriety or order within the world. There are, of course, consequentialist interpretations of teleological ethics. Utilitarianism is an offspring from this rationalist root, and shows its ancestry by its confidence in a self-evident and unarguable idea of happiness which does in fact, and should self-consciously, govern all human conduct as an end.

      It is sometimes suggested that faced with this dichotomy we have only two possibilities open to us. We can claim, on the one hand, a strict interchangeability between these two forms of moral language; on the other, we may suppose that they point objectively to two different kinds of morality. The latter course, which has proved the most popular in recent discussions, can itself lead in two ways. It can suggest a grading of the two kinds as higher and lower, a measure which will probably indicate a Kantian kind of preference for the ‘ought’; or it can result in a simple pluralism… However, it would appear that the alternative is wrongly posed in the first place. We are not compelled to think the two languages interchangeable (if that means without loss of sense) in order to say that they point to the same objective moral reality. There is evidently a difference in sense between saying that one ‘ought to’ do something and saying that it is ‘good’. Yet any actual moral claim can be expressed either in terms of obligation or in terms of the good; and it would be merely doctrinaire to insist that in choosing the second form of expression one must fail to appreciate its true moral force. What the two languages do is to draw our attention to different and complementary aspects of moral claims as we encounter them. The deontic language emphasizes the critical relation of moral authority to natural authority and of divine authority to all created authority. We say ‘ought’ when we need to stress the contradiction between this overriding claim and what we should otherwise have thought or felt…On the other hand, the teleological language draws attention to the rationality of moral and divine authority. It drives us to express, as best we can, the meaning of that authority within the ordered universe, even when that expression is the expression of a hope for a resolution that we cannot yet comprehend.

      Kant, for all his commitment to deontic ethics and his dependence on the notion of law, understood that the distinctive character of the ‘ought’, its expression of the ‘imperative’, arose from the relation of constraint between the objective law of reason and a will not subjectively determined to it. A holy will, like the divine will, would not encounter the law as imperative or as ‘ought’. The strong antithesis between the concepts of happiness and duty is the constant theme of the ‘Analytic’ section of the Critique of Practical Reason, where classical ethics is subjected to criticism for its approach to moral law by way of the controlling concept of the summum bonum, which inevitably, Kant argues, left their moral thought heteronomous and at the mercy of the principles of happiness and pleasure. However, in the ‘Dialectic’ section the notion of the ‘highest good’ is reinstated in Kant’s ethics as the object, though not the motive, of the pure practical reason, and we learn that the Christian eschatological hope of the kingdom of God, complete with the idea of happiness, is, together with the immortality of the soul, a necessary ‘postulate’ of practical reason.

      We may say, then, that the tension between the two moral languages reflects a necessary dialectic in the perceptions of moral agents for whom moral insight is still a task and not yet an achieved fact. In moments of grace we may be given the perception that our duty and our fulfillment are one and the same, and we may speak of that unity in hope and faith; but we cannot ask that we should never be challenged to further thought and conscientious struggle by an awareness of the divergence of inclination and duty.

      The crucial phrase here is ‘they point to the same objective moral reality’.

      Matt’s ethics have been powerfully informed by O’Donovan’s: Christian obedience is grounded within natural moral order, an order that is revealed (‘revelation catches man out in the guilty possession of a knowledge which he has always had, but from which he has never won a true understanding’—Resurrection and Moral Order, 89) and restored through the gospel. It would be a significant caricature to present Matt’s approach as one of merely deontological ethics.

      • On the point about either teleological or deontological, I don’t think we have to choose. Alastair has already quoted O’Donovan at length on this (he also addresses the subject in Self, World and Time along the lines of the good and the right), but another example would be Terence Irwin who insists that deontology is a necessary addition to Aristotle’s ethics.

        It’s also somewhat misleading to identify deontological ethics as idealist. Although there are, no doubt, idealist deontological ethics.

      • RobD says:

        Thanks. The above quote perfectly illustrates my general discomfort with O’Donovan. He seems to move back and forth between idealist (Kantian) and realist epistemologies with no real consistency. I tend to believe that realist epistemologies are far more consistent with Christian belief than idealist epistemologies. So, that’s why I’ve always been a bit bothered by O’Donovan’s reimagining of teleology in Kantian terms. Deontology seems to be much more consistent with the “cultural conservatism” of thinkers like Roger Scruton. And while there may be some overlap between what Christians and cultural conservatives advocate in the public square, I see no reason to cloak cultural conservatism with the mantle of biblical warrant. I have much the same objection to many evangelicals’ zeal to embrace the New Natural Law propounded by Grisez, Finnis, and Robbie George, which focuses on Kant’s “second nature” (i.e., an idealist “nature” that exists apart from physical reality).

      • I don’t see how exactly O’Donovan’s position is without consistency. Your representation of his position strikes me as an imposition of your own dichotomy upon his work, rather than an engagement with his position on its own terms. Charging a theologian of O’Donovan’s brilliance with inconsistency is rather bold thing to do. The person making such a claim would need to be deeply acquainted with O’Donovan’s work on its own terms.

        New natural law, with which I have strong differences, may not unfairly be described as Kantian in key respects. However, I am far from persuaded that the charge holds in O’Donovan’s case. For instance, O’Donovan accounts for teleology in the following terms, which are far from straightforwardly Kantian:

        Abstraction from teleology creates a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe. For it supposes that the observing mind encounters an inert creation—not, that is, a creation without movement, but a creation without a point to its movement. Thus the mind credits to its own conceptual creativity that teleological order which is, despite everything, necessary to life. All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. That vegetables exist as food for other animals than himself will not impress him—unless, of course, the continued existence of other animals too falls within his deliberative purposes for the world, in which case both vegetation and animal life will continue to hold their value as a feoff from himself. Thus arises the irony of our own days, in which the very protection of nature has to be argued in terms of man’s ‘interest’ in preserving his ‘environment’. Such a philosophy offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things. For if it were true that he imposed his rule upon nature from without, then there would be no limit to it. It would have been from the beginning a crude struggle to stamp an inert and formless nature with the insignia of his will. Such has been the philosophy bred by a scientism liberated from the discipline of Christian metaphysics. It is not what the Psalmist meant by the dominion of man, which was a worshipping and respectful sovereignty, a glad responsibility for the natural order which he both discerned and loved.—Resurrection and Moral Order, 52

        O’Donovan’s account of the good is both inner and outer, with a participationary feedback loop. The human ‘nature’ in view is not an ‘idealist “nature” that exists apart from physical reality’, but is our nature, a nature that is directed towards its perfection. In light of both our sinful rebellion, the flawed character of our dispositions on account of the Fall, and the as yet unperfected character of our nature, the order of nature stands ‘over against’ us. However, it can also assert itself within us, in the form of a conatus.

      • RobD says:

        Thanks for the clarification. Before responding further, I wanted to take a few days to reread O’Donovan. It’s been about 5-6 years since I’ve read him directly. In recent years, I’ve primarily engaged with him by way of proponents of “masculine Christianity” and by the Christian Right. After rereading O’Donovan, I’d conclude that you’re right, and that his self-appointed American prolocutors are largely misreading him.

        Also, thanks for linking to the great piece written by Peter Leithart. The Christian view of love is something much more akin to what Leithart identifies in the works of Austen, not the pornographic romantic view of love. But, sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much effort, at least among American evangelicals, to return to anything along the lines of Austen. Instead, there seems to be far greater interest in creating some kind of syncretistic Christianized variant of the pornographic view of love (where the pornographic view of love is imagined as “natural” and its expression is simply limited to monogamous opposite-sex relationships).

        That probably evolves out of American evangelicals’ tendency to define themselves more by what they’re against than by what they’re for. There’s a far greater interest in pointing people away from would-be dangers than there is in pointing people toward human flourishing. And the means of doing this are often selected rather haphazardly. So, in many instances, they’re not really leading people away from peril; they’re just unwittingly guiding them down paths that lead them to peril more indirectly.

  10. whitefrozen says:

    This is a long comment – but I’m interested in hearing any takes on it (it’s not my comment):

    on what basis are you so quick to say that homosexuality is a moral sin? The passages in the NT are ambiguous at best. The OT passages are irrelevant, since you can’t pick and choose which OT laws to follow. And we already pick and choose rather arbitrarily in the NT. In Rom. 1, Paul appeals to nature, but I don’t see anyone today who is convinced that we need to accept Paul’s appeal to nature in 1 Cor. 11 regarding head coverings. And 1 Cor. 11 is a direct admonition to the Corinthian church, whereas Rom. 1 is not. The rest of the NT passages are lists of vices with words that are notoriously difficult to define, particularly when you see them in their larger Greco-Roman context. But even then, the NT has a clear command regarding ethics: our way of life has no other normative principle than the gospel, specifically, the gospel of God’s love (cf. Rom. 13:10). In other words, the NT stands resolutely against any new ethical code, like Leviticus. Instead, it calls the church to regularly reassess their lives in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, what Paul calls the “law of love.”

    The cultural framework within which the NT was written is not itself part of this gospel. Just like we don’t think that in order to be a Christian you have to believe that heaven is somewhere in the sky or that the earth is a certain number of years old, so too the cultural assumptions regarding what is “natural” are not determinative of the Christian faith. The gospel can be contextualized and enculturated in different times and places while still remaining the gospel. These different cultures have different interpretations of what is “natural,” and thus the gospel will call them to different ways of life, always united by the law of love. We need to avoid radical relativism, but we also need to avoid cultural imperialism and legalism.

    My basic point is this: homosexuality is only self-evidently a sin if you accept the definition of “natural” with which the biblical writers were working. But since this definition of “natural” is not itself constitutive of the gospel, it can be jettisoned without losing anything. I think we have to see the problem of homosexuality the way Paul saw the problem of eating meat sacrificed to idols: if you are part of a culture where that is offensive to the community, then you must live differently; but if you are part of a different community that no longer takes offense, then you are free to live that way. The appeal to Genesis and the “original” man and woman is irrelevant, because as I already said, there are post-fall conditions which we no longer view as barriers to full participation in society and worship. And it is not self-evident that homosexuality cannot be classed with these non-offensive post-fall conditions. (from http://dogmatics.wordpress.com/2009/03/16/creation-redemption-and-homosexual-desire/)

    • whitefrozen says:

      I meant to have bit of a postscript – I realize the comment is slightly off topic specifically, but it fits in with the discussion of sexual ethics generally.

    • Thanks for passing on the comment. In response:

      1. Homosexuality isn’t a sin. It involves a disordering of sexual desires and, to that extent at least, is morally disordered. Such disorder and predisposition towards sin ought to be distinguished from active sin. However, there is often much more to being gay than feeling sexual desire to persons of the same sex. Like other conditions involving disorder on some level (say, high functioning autism), depending on how the person acts upon it, it can prove to be a positive feature of a person’s personality in many respects. So I agree with much of his final point (the discussion in the post he refers to is focused upon Wesley Hill’s claim, with whom I largely share a common line here).

      2. I don’t think that we can brush off the NT passages this easily. There is a strong exegetical case to be answered. The fact that countless readings of the NT texts have been advanced does not mean that the texts themselves are ‘ambiguous at best’ or that the alternative readings have much merit. There is far too ready a tendency to presume that ‘pervasive interpretative pluralism’ tells us something about the text itself, rather than about its interpreters and the interpretations they advance.

      3. The idea that we ‘pick and choose’ (I wouldn’t be surprised if the commenter got this from RHE) which OT laws to follow again presumes that we have no principles in our use of the OT law. We do. Unfortunately, few acquaint themselves with them, or have much knowledge of the OT law to begin with.

      4. As to Paul’s use of nature in 1 Corinthians 11, he obviously hasn’t been looking carefully if he believes there is no one convinced of Paul’s argument today. While Paul is indeed addressing a culturally contingent reality, it would be naïve to presume that the natural principle he appeals to is that men should have a particular hair length, rather than that men should be distinguished from women and not pursue those culturally contingent strong markers of femininity to be like them.

      5. The command to love one’s neighbour as oneself is quoted right from the pages of Leviticus (19:18), incidentally, from the passage appearing immediately between the two references to homosexual relations.

      6. Please don’t get me started on the accommodation debate…!🙂

      7. As for the concept of the ‘natural’ not being integral to the gospel, I strongly differ: the gospel is about the restoration and perfection of nature. You should prescribe O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order.

      8. Also, let’s presume that we can disqualify all of the texts that supposedly prohibit homosexual relations, we still are left with a huge problem. Where does Scripture sanction—let alone bless—sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and woman?

      9. Naming homosexuality as a post-fall condition is significant. The fact that it is ‘post-fall’ suggests that it is a disordering of an original order. As I have already made clear, not all such disordering involves culpability, nor is all such disorder entirely negative in its effects. Quite the opposite. The problem is with homosexual relations, not primarily on the level of the condition that involves, among other things, a predisposition towards these.

      • Jonathan Roberts says:

        This comment is a bit out of left field, but I thought it was interesting to read the part of the Book of Jasher relating to Sodom and Gomorrha. It’s always seemed odd to me that Sodom’s sin is so often seen as homosexuality, especially as the cities were already condemned before the angels visited Lot. Genesis doesn’t go into much detail as to the outcry against Sodom, but Jasher 18 and 19 are much more specific and only really mention (heterosexual) sex once. Whether you consider the book basically accurate or a type of early fan-fiction, it does tell us something about what people many centuries before Christ believed. The main objections seem to be that the cities used their laws and customs to attack strangers. For example (19:8):

        >And when a poor man came to their land they would give him silver and gold, and cause a proclamation in the whole city not to give him a morsel of bread to eat, and if the stranger should remain there some days, and die from hunger, not having been able to obtain a morsel of bread, then at his death all the people of the city would come and take their silver and gold which they had given to him.

        The law would protect those who did this and punish those who didn’t – Lot’s married daughter was burned alive for secretly feeding a man who came to the city. The law was actively designed to defraud outsiders, taunt them while they were doing this and create a grotesque parody of kindness, hospitality, truth and other principles (including sexuality – four times a year the men would grab their neighbour’s wives and daughters and have an orgy, without any objection from the neighbour).

        I think the statement in Genesis about the outcry against Sodom makes more sense in the light of this. The angel-raping isn’t actually mentioned, which may suggest that it wasn’t considered the most central part of the story at the time, but was rather typical of the extent to which public morality had fallen. It also explains Lot’s reply to the men of Sodom, as raping women would be accepted practice in this culture. I don’t think either version has a lot to say about modern forms of homosexuality though – as a number have noted, rape is more about power than sex.

      • I don’t think that most commentators would say that the sin of Sodom was straightforwardly about same-sex relations. Nor does this account bear that much weight in the more scholarly discussions. Ezekiel 16:48-50 makes a similar point about the character of the sin of Sodom, focusing upon its decadence and its treatment of the poor and needy, culminating in its committing of abomination.

        Homosexual gang rape, more akin to the sort of behaviour you might expect in a prison than in a same-sex marriage, is perceived as a particular wilful and egregious ‘abomination’. It serves as a comprehensive violation of God’s image. Just giving a few moment’s thought to it, it should be clear that this was less about satisfying sexual desire than about an attempt to subject the messengers of God to the worst imaginable shame. Homosexual gang rape is also alluded to in the parallel passage of Judges 19, where the Levite is threatened by it. In both cases it is not only an absence of hospitality more generally, but a particular way of treating God’s messengers that is at issue.

        These texts are not without their relevance to the homosexuality debates, but it is less direct than assumed by many in the more popular forms of these.

      • RobD says:

        Alastair,

        Thanks for this response (even though it wasn’t to me). I agree that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to interpret Scripture as permitting same-sex sexual acts. The recent arguments put forth by Vines and Brownson essentially require one to reject male-female complementarity. While we can certainly quibble over what the social implications of complementarity are, it’s hard to reject it out of hand. Doing so requires one to ignore too much of Scripture and nearly 2000 years of church teaching and practice.

        Still, I have some reservations about your definition of homosexuality. It appears that you’re falling into the Freudian trap of trying to describe it as some kind of medical condition. I don’t deny that there’s a biological component. But research suggests that psychological and sociological factors play just as important a role.

        A number of cultures, for example, tolerate a fair degree of same-sex physical attraction between men, and do not generally associate that attraction to genital erotic desire. In contrast, certain subcultures in the US tolerate virtually no same-sex physical attraction between men (even non-sexual physical attraction) and associate all such attraction with genital erotic desire. So, it’s quite possible that a guy growing up in Italy may perceive himself to be straight, while the same guy growing up in Mississippi may perceive himself to be gay.

        Further, one’s psychological wiring has a huge effect on how one reacts to that. For example, I meet very few openly gay people in the US who are Js on the MBI J-P index. I suspect that many Js who initially perceive themselves to be gay never come out of the closet; instead, they conform to social expectations and move on with their lives. On the other hand, internally focused Ps are more inclined to come out.

        For these reasons, I object to identifying homosexuality (or heterosexuality) as either natural or unnatural. Both result from a complex mix of biological, social, and psychological factors, which renders both concepts as somewhat contingent. As I mentioned previouslt, I spend a fair bit of time working in continental Europe. In the US, I tend to identify as gay, while I identify as straight in Europe. When I fly from Geneva to Dulles, do I suddenly become unnatural somewhere over the ocean? Or, because I carry an American passport, am I bound by American standards of masculinity everywhere I go? When Paul uses “natural” in Romans 1, he is making a straightforward observation about genital complementarity. Nothing more. Put another way, I suspect that Paul would view procreative sex between an opposite-sex mixed-orientation married couple as natural. I see no reason to follow O’Donovan’s lead in reading idealist notions into Paul’s use of “natural.”

        Lastly, I agree with your statement regarding the Gospel and the restoration of nature, insofar as we note that the primary locus of that restoration is the church, i.e., through the regular administration of the means of grace. I see little in Scripture that gives warrant to the syncretistic project that’s come to be known in the US as the Culture Wars.

      • Thanks for the comment, Rob.

        I didn’t offer a definition of homosexuality. All that I did was to distinguish between speaking of ‘homosexuality’ as a condition and speaking of homosexual acts. I provided no etiology. In speaking of it as a condition, I don’t mean to suggest that it has purely biological causes. One would be very hard pressed to argue that homosexuality is such a condition, not least because it takes so many radically differing forms in the world, and doesn’t manifest itself in some cultures at all. Also, things like twin studies cut both directions here: although they may suggest a biological component, they also suggest that this isn’t a sufficient explanation. My position is that there are a combination of factors that produce it, and that a biological predisposition (not a determination) is an important piece of the puzzle, while not at all the only one.

        I agree with your third paragraph. Our culture’s construction of homosexuality, with its treatment of the homosexual as if he were ontologically a different kind of person, is part of the problem here. As I have observed in my own travels, there is a broad scope for intimate and physically affectionate friendship between persons of the same sex in other cultures. Part of the means by which such friendships are often sustained, ironically, is by a huge cultural taboo upon homosexual relations and the fact that they are generally unthinkable. This keeps the boundaries very clear. A David and a Jonathan or a Frodo and a Sam are in an intense, even a romantic, friendship. They are not, however, homosexual lovers, active or not. In our society, the physically affectionate is constantly blurred into the sexual. People insist on labelling anyone expressing love or affection towards a person of the same sex as a homosexual, especially famous figures of the past.

        As people must guard themselves against such a representation, the only places where many guys can enjoy close relationships with persons of the same sex occur in contexts where everyone is simultaneously asserting their heterosexual masculinity (sports being a great example). Hyper-masculinity is in no small measure a reaction to the widespread suspicion of underlying homosexuality. A similar freezing effect can be seen in the way that relationships between men and children have been changed as the suspicion of paedophilia has grown. To blame hyper-masculinity for pushing people to identify as homosexual because of their inability to conform to a restrictive gender role is only one part of the picture. This hyper-masculinity didn’t arise from nowhere: it is an attempt to provide the conditions within which the good of close male relationships can be enjoyed in a society where such relationships will be suspected of homosexual undercurrents unless heterosexuality is aggressively demonstrated.

        I guess my experience on the psychology front that you mention is different from yours. I can immediately think of a couple of ‘gay Js’ from the US among my acquaintances (who have told me their types).

        Paul’s use of the category of ‘natural’ is probably not merely about ‘genital complementarity’. First of all, genitals shouldn’t be abstracted from persons: at the very least we should be speaking of the complementarity of ‘males’ and ‘females’. Second, the passage includes various references to ‘lusts’ and ‘passions’. Although ‘natural’ is focused upon sexual relations, human beings are embedded participants in ‘nature’, for whom this ‘nature’ is both internal and external. The atypical lack or distortion of the conatus ordering one to the good of natural sexual relations is thus also an impairment of nature.

        Gender difference is also natural (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:14). The point here isn’t that any particular cultural gender construct is ‘natural’—cultural forms of gender difference are highly contingent—but that the existence and observance of some such construct is. The cultural shape of gender differentiation varies from culture to culture, but the fact of such a differentiation does not.

        I’m still highly unconvinced by your representation of O’Donovan’s position as one of Kantian idealism. You will have to provide a lot more evidence to make that particular charge stick. Did you consider in making your earlier claim that O’Donovan was inconsistent the possibility that the problem lay more with O’Donovan’s failure to slot neatly into your predetermined categories? At several points in your various comments, you seem to make far-reaching assumptions about some position or other, prematurely categorizing them, when further examination might reveal that they don’t fit so tidily.

        Yes, I think that Paul would regard ‘procreative sex between an opposite-sex mixed-orientation married couple’ as natural. I also doubt that Paul would be on board with the notion that persons with a homosexual ‘orientation’ must be turned into good little heterosexuals. Biblical accounts of proper sexual desire are less focused upon a generic attraction to the other sex than upon a particular sexual desire towards one’s spouse. Same-sex attraction would be regarded as a natural impairment, but as something that can be lived with in holiness, without necessarily presenting any sort of insurmountable obstacle to marriage.

        As for the ‘Culture Wars’, so called, I would be interested to know exactly what you oppose about them. I note that your limited description of them seems to imply that you perceive them to have been driven largely by conservatives. This representation of affairs is highly tendentious, largely because much of the culture wars have consisted in conservatives and Christians resisting the institution of liberal and progressive cultural revolutions. The notion that Christians are the aggressors here is far from self-evident. Should Christians just lay down all opposition and allow the widespread practice of abortion? Should we condemn those desiring to institute same-sex marriage as ‘culture warriors’? While I may share much of your pronounced distaste for the particular shape that Christian resistance has taken and the reactionary culture that has developed in many American Christian circles, some sort of cultural struggle is necessary. Christians have both a stake within and responsibility to their society and should not stand silently by as that society legitimates such things as the violation of the child in the womb and the far-reaching redefinition of marriage.

      • RobD says:

        I have a follow-up comments that occurred to me as I was dozing off last night.

        It relates to the propriety of mixed-orientation marriages. A fair number of evangelicals in the US are opposed to mixed-orientation marriages. These evangelicals view heterosexuality, particularly male heterosexuality, as a sort of teleological end (never mind that it’s largely a socially constructed thing). Thus, they would argue that Paul’s reference to “natural” is something more than a mere reference to the male-female binary; rather, in their view, Paul is arguing for the valorization of heterosexual desire, and, particularly, male heterosexual desire. Thus, according to this view, same-sex acts are sinful primarily because they deny the goodness of male heterosexual desire and not because they violate the male-female binary. These evangelicals would therefore argue against mixed-orientation marriages, especially where the male partner is gay, because the couple is not capable of “natural” sex, i.e., sex whose end is the fulfillment of male heterosexual desires. According to this view, heteronormativity is a proper teleological end (despite its socially constructed origins), and that the church therefore has a duty to separate the “real men” from the girly-men and to ensure that heterosexual sex is reserved for the “real men.” According to this view, it’s not just the same-sex act that is disordered, but also (and primarily) the homosexual person (i.e., the effeminate man) who is disordered.

        Based on our earlier discussions, it sounds as though this view is rather uncommon among UK evangelicals. This view (or some slightly watered-down variant of it) is quite common in the US, however, especially among evangelical Reformed folk. I don’t think that you’re propounding this view, but I’m not altogether sure. Sometimes you write things that make me think that you’re advocating what I’ve described above; but, at other times, you write things that seem contrary to this view. If you could clarify, it may be helpful.

      • Thanks for the question, Rob. This should probably be my final response in this thread.

        I don’t believe that sexual attraction to persons of the other sex is socially constructed in a manner that could lead us to deny that it is also conforming to and arising from nature. Of course, like gender difference, while it is natural it is inextricable from the extensive social construction in which it is situated. It is malleable, but not amorphous. It admits variation and the possible of distortion, but it serves to strengthen the participatory connection between the natural order without us and its internal, psychological correlates. We never encounter this sexual attraction in some raw form, innocent of all cultural formation. However, this doesn’t mean that the sexual attraction is nothing but this cultural formation.

        Such attraction, however, is not an end in itself, but is subservient to the end of natural sexual relations. Heterosexual desire asserts the natural ordering of men and women to each other within us. This natural ordering, of course, is not itself contingent upon the presence of the desire that corresponds to it. As a man, I am still sexually ordered to a woman, even though my desire may tell me otherwise.

        Heterosexual desire, like feeling an affinity between my sense of my gender and my physical body, is an aspect of my psychological congruity with the natural order. Amorphous queerness or ambivalence to this natural order is not the natural state of affairs. There is also a profound asymmetry between ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ or between ‘cisgender’ and ‘transgender’. For all that people talk about such things as oppressive ‘cisheterosexism’, it is important to recognize that hardly any of us experience ourselves as ‘cisgender’ or ‘heterosexual’. We don’t ‘identify’ ourselves as anything: rather, we experience a congruity between our inclinations and the natural order of gender difference and male-female relations and so don’t typically ascribe any such labels to ourselves at all. We experience ourselves as going along with the natural orientation of men to women and men and women to identification with their own bodies, so don’t typically experience any need to speak of any further ‘orientation’ within ourselves in juxtaposition to the more general order of nature in which we participate.

        Speaking about particular cultural forms of masculinity and heterosexuality is any debate entirely. On that front, I suspect that I would also criticize many of the things that you criticize in American evangelical circles. The narrow focusing of marriage upon the satisfaction of heterosexual desire is quite problematic.

        To your question, ‘heterosexuality’ should not be treated as an end in itself and ‘homosexuality’ does not always prevent a person from happy and fruitful marriage to a person of the other sex (I know persons in such marriages). This obviously isn’t the answer for everyone. However, those who do not marry are not thereby cut off from realizing the good of their natures. Changing people’s sexual orientations really shouldn’t be our primary goal.

        The concern that I have with your position is that we don’t abstract the person from nature and the presence of this nature in their bodies. Severing the person from nature—and from their own bodily nature—as if their right relationship with nature were established purely through deliberation, speculation, action, and volition is profoundly problematic. I am a male and my relationship to the female is not just a matter to be deduced by reflection upon some ‘nature’ outside of me, nor the positing of an ideal ‘nature’ distinct from my own to which I must conform. It is also something that should be known to me within as a conatus, whereby my nature is drawn towards its good, enjoying an instinctual acquaintance with its end. Where a person feels a pronounced internal inclination away from the good, I think that we are justified in speaking of a ‘disorder’ or impairment of the natural order.

        This does not, however, justify the unreasonable forms that such judgments take in many societies, where the failure to manifest a very particular form of ‘ordering’ is regarded as sufficient basis upon which to declare disorder. Nor does this justify the fixation upon our instinctual ordering towards the good as if it were equivalent to the good itself. The obsession with ‘orientation’ on all sides is quite unhealthy.

        Thanks for the stimulating interaction: it has been fun! I will have to bow out at this point, but I would be interested to read any remarks that you might have in response.

      • RobD says:

        Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think we largely agree, although we get there by different means. My political theology lies much more along the lines of a 2K Reformed view espoused by Trueman, Hart, and others, while I suspect that yours is not.

  11. Joel says:

    Maybe you address this in the podcast; I haven’t listened yet and can’t right now. But should we call trans people by their chosen gender (“he” or “she”) for politeness?

    • Sorry about the delayed response, Joel. My inclination would be to avoid referring to a trans person by a gender if at all possible. If I had to do so it would depend upon the context and the person. I would be inclined to use their chosen gender in situations where they were present or where deep hurt would be caused if I didn’t, while making apparent in an appropriate time and non-confrontational way that I am not granting their broader claims in so doing. I don’t think that this is a hill to die on. Giving ground at such a point allows us to focus upon the larger task of bringing God’s truth into their situation, rather than immediately erecting barriers. The ground given at this point can be recovered later in an appropriate manner.

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