When I wrote my generic About Me-type page, I wrote that “sex organs don’t delineate souls,” largely because it’s an issue with which I’ve been wrestling lately. As promised to Matt, I’ll expand on those ideas a bit here. What I’m primarily discussing is the question of homosexuality within a Christian ethic. It’s a crucial question practically, because very few denominations genuinely affirm queers in their congregation and leadership, even if you exclude the “gays are evil anti-family perverts” crowd. Moreover, I think that the subject touches on a lot of issues that I’ve been exploring in recent thoughts and discussions: gender, embodiment, ethics, authority, and logic/reason.
I’ll start with the physical and philosophical, then get to the theological. My first observation is that, before we even start talking about the fluidity of genders, we have to look at the fluidity of sexes. Intersex children regularly get born, and there simply does not exist a clear dividing line between the sexes, whether you’re looking at chromosomes or physical features or hormones. Thus, any kind of theology that claims to be universal has to acknowledge that male/female is not a simple dichotomy, in body or mind. Second, the factors controlling what attracts us are fluid, not merely in their results but in their systems of categorization. Any attempt to apply theology to “sexual orientation” must address all realms of the subject, from practices to mental inclinations to self-identification, while recognizing that the links between these realms change between times and societies.
My next comment, which ought to be obvious but often isn’t, is that averages are not essences. On average, women have a statistically worse sense of direction than men; however, my own sense of direction is better than most males’. An argument for an essential difference between men and women must rely on something other than statistics to prove its case, because the only thing that you can get from averages is more averages (e.g. “women tend to develop nurturing skills more as children, so they tend to be more empathic as adults”). An essential difference must rely on absolutes, not likelihoods; you can’t say “action X tends to result in a negative outcome more often than a positive one, therefore action X is essentially and categorically evil.”
Now on to the theology. The Bible clearly differentiates between men and women, although it does not differentiate between “heterosexual” and “homosexual” (categories that didn’t even exist at the time), merely condemning men who engage in male homosexual sex. There’s no question that these condemnations exist; you can’t get much clearer than “if a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.” (Lev. 12:13) The New Testament, while less blunt, includes various Greek words for man-with-man sex in sin lists. However, there’s also no question that many of the commandments in the Bible simply don’t apply any more. The passage I just quoted from Leviticus also condemns heterosexual sex during a woman’s period, after all.
The problem for Christians, then, is how to decide whether discussions of male homosexual sex fall under the category of acts that Christians ought to avoid. Before beginning that, I’ll quickly review what is not a question in the Bible. First of all, female-female sexual acts are not a real question in the Bible. There’s one odd and debatable passage in the NT, and otherwise the Bible’s silent. Why? Well, you can talk about gender bias (a subject for another post), you can blame the view of penetration-as-sex, or you can suggest that what the Bible dislikes about gay sex is that it defiles men by feminizing them. In any case, an argument that forbids female homosexual encounters has got to have more of a foundation than “because the Bible says it’s wrong,” because it overwhelmingly doesn’t. Second, while the Bible has plenty of passages discussing what’s going on in people’s hearts and minds, none of those passages refer to same-sex sexual desires. The closest that you can get is an indirect argument: “gay sex, like adultery, is sexual sin; Jesus says that lustful thoughts are adultery (Matt. 5:28); therefore lustful gay thoughts are gay sex, and thus sin.” I see this as a problematic argument, especially if that’s your only reason to condemn someone’s self-identification as a chaste non-straight Christian.
The only real Biblical question, then, is this: is it okay for men to have sex with other men? To answer that, I think it’s worth looking at a) Biblical principles and b) ethical consistency, in order to decide whether those particular Biblical commandments apply to modern Christians. And that gets us into varying ethical strategies and perspectives, and that’s a big enough topic for me to save it for the next post. This is, after all, the core of my favorite class this semester. Suffice it to say that the fluidity of sex, gender, and orientation will play a significant part in my argument, if only because I think too few discussions of sex and theology have moved beyond a binary “male/female, straight/gay” mindset.
To be continued.