Sunday, August 19, 2007

Fiddling While Faggots Burn

Published in GCN in April 1981. Soon after I wrote this I began serious research on Christianity -- the history of the New Testament, the origins of the Jesus cult, and particularly Christian teachings on homosexuality -- in preparation for a projected book, Like Father, Like Son: An Attack on Christianity. I never quite finished it, but I did more reviews on religion-related books for GCN and elsewhere over the years, and the issue still (obviously) interests me.

Homosexuality and Ethics

Edited by Edward Batchelor Jr.
The Pilgrim Press
261 pp
$10.95 clothbound; $8.95 paper

A more honest title for this book would have been Homosexuality and Theology, or at least Homosexuality and Judeo-Christian Ethics. Though its editor, Edward Batchelor Jr., says his intent “is to survey the present state of the ongoing debate among ethicists,” he either couldn’t find or didn’t look for material written from a utilitarian or existentialist or Marxist viewpoint. Perhaps he thought that bringing together Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish writers between the same covers was comprehensive enough. In any case, there is little ethical discussion in its pages, though there is much of the straining at gnats and swallowing of camels which is the stock-in-trade of theologians.

Another more accurate title would be Homosexuality and Heterosexual Ethics, considering that of the twenty-five articles, commission reports, and book excerpts included, only one is by an acknowledged (though anonymous!) gay person. Of the remaining twenty-four contributions all assume the primacy of heterosexuality, viewing homosexuality as an inconvenient aberration which, since it exists, must be dealt with. I had the sense as I read that even the most liberal writers felt that Christianity is heterosexual property which their consciences demanded they share with us; and that they were debating how much – how little, rather – to concede to us, like Lot deliberating whether to throw his daughters or his angelic visitors to the Sodomites. Meanwhile we are expected to wait patiently outside while the professionals work it out, not to participate directly in the debate. As if there were no queer clergy or ethicists! Mr. Batchelor himself, shown on the back flap in clerical collar, is chaplain and lecturer in religion at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York; it is perhaps understandable that he preferred to keep things in the club, if not justifiable.

What does Homosexuality and Ethics reveal about “the present state of the ongoing debate among” straight and mostly male Judeo-Christian “ethicists”? I found it instructive to compare the volume under review to The Same Sex, edited by Ralph W. Weltge and published, also by The Pilgrim Press, in 1969 – especially since Mr. Batchelor includes two articles from that collection. Unlike the present volume, The Same Sex was interdisciplinary, including writings by sex researchers and lawyers as well as theologians, and contained pieces by gay activists writing under their own names. Of course Mr. Batchelor may not care about the secular sphere – render unto Caesar and all that, you know – and far be it from me to complain about the book he chose not to compile. In his favor he has included useful source material from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, an area not represented in Weltge, and position papers on homosexuality from various Jewish and Christian religious bodies. But it is my impression that “the present state of the debate” is about what it was in 1969, with the possible exception of Lisa Sowle Cahill’s concluding critique, which raises questions about both sides of the controversy capably, if in technical language. Ms. Cahill’s discussion serves mainly to show, however, on how technically primitive a level the debate has so far been conducted.

If, in fact, Mr. Batchelor had set out to assemble a book in which Christians themselves discredited Christianity as an ethical guide, he could not have been more successful than he has. Four major positions are represented: homosexual acts are (1) intrinsically evil, (2) essentially imperfect, (3) to be evaluated in terms of their relational significance, and (4) natural and good. Each position is discussed by three or four of its partisans. (Does it mean anything that [1] and [2] are given ninety pages of text, while [3] and [4] get forty?) What emerges is that sincere and well-informed Christian scholars cannot agree, not merely on whether homosexuality is right or wrong (or “sinful”), but on what basis a Christian ethic should be constructed. They disagree on the role of Biblical authority and on how much weight should be granted to modern scientific findings about homosexuality. Should a linguistic or legalistic exegesis determine one’s position, or is exegesis itself contrary to the spirit of Jesus’ teaching? Can traditional positions be set aside when tradition is what defines Christianity? (The Jewish writers, by the way, are all – except for the anonymous gay – lined up on the negative side.) The writers represented in Homosexuality and Ethics take among themselves every possible stand, and thereby end up canceling each other out. It is still argued, mostly by the more conservative Christians, that without Christianity or at least some kind of religion we cannot know what is right and what is wrong. What this book shows is that even with Christianity we can’t know: not just about specific cases such as homosexuality, but even about the fundamental principles by which to decide such questions.

Calling for a return to the New Testament does no good either, for it offers as much confusion as does current debate. Is justification by faith alone (Paul) or by faith plus works (James)? Is salvation gained (if it is gained rather than a free gift) by rigorous obedience to Torah (Matthew 5:19-20, 23:1-3, Luke 11:45), or are Christians free not to obey Torah (Galatians 3:10-14, 5:1-15)? Or must one abandon one’s family (Matthew 19:29 and parallels), give up all possessions (Matthew 19.21 and parallels) or simply believe in Jesus and be baptized (Mark 16:16)? Is divorce permitted when a spouse has been unchaste (Matthew 5:31-32), or is it never permitted at all (Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18)? The New Testament reflects early Christian dissension, not unanimity.

Not every Christian looks for an ethical certainty with (to cite Sartre out of context) “the permanence and impenetrability of stone,” but most presumably look to their faith for a reliable guide for evaluating conduct. Whatever their reasons – to get into heaven, to escape Hell, to please God, to do what is right – they want to know what God thinks. What they will learn from Homosexuality and Ethics is what “a broad range of concerned professionals” think God thinks. No wonder so many people are drawn to the fanaticism of the Moral Majority: they are looking for someone who will teach “as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22), no matter how repulsive the teachings.

To do justice to the discussions in Homosexuality and Ethics would take a book as long as itself. Since I doubt I have to convince GCN readers that Aquinas, Barth, and the other traditionalists are wrong, I’d like to examine the selection by James B. Nelson, “Gayness and Homosexuality: Issues for the Church”, which calls for full acceptance of homosexuality by the Church and is, in practice, on our side. It seems to me, however, that Mr. Nelson reaches conclusions not warranted by his arguments, however much I may agree with those conclusions.

Mr. Nelson first argues (p. 187) that

Nowhere does the Bible say anything about homosexuality as a sexual orientation. Its references to the subject are – without exception – statements about certain kinds of homosexual acts. Our understanding of homosexuality as a psychosexual orientation is a relatively recent development. It is crucial to remember this, for in all probability the biblical writers in each instance were speaking of homosexual acts undertaken by persons whom the authors presumed to be heterosexually constituted.

Insofar as this is true, it proves nothing. After all, the book under review is organized according to the way each writer evaluates homosexual acts, so this perspective is as modern as it is ancient. Understanding homosexuality as a “psychosexual orientation” does not necessarily predispose one to accept it, either; it can still be perceived as a pathological or deviant orientation. The real question, which Mr. Nelson does not answer, is why the Biblical writers rejected homosexual acts when other ancient cultures did not.

The same question arises with Saint Paul, who set aside much of traditional Jewish teaching (such as the dietary laws and circumcision) but kept, among other things, its prohibition of homosexual acts. Like Jesus, Paul went so far as to argue that it was best to avoid all sexual activity if possible, though Paul did not suggest castration as a means to that end, as Jesus did (Matthew 19:12).

Mr. Nelson does not deal with Paul’s view of marriage as the lesser of two evils (1 Corinthians 7). He concentrates on Romans 1:18-32, the passage in which Paul explains “dishonorable passions” as the result of failure to acknowledge Yahweh:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error [Romans 1:26-27, Revised Standard Version].

Mr. Nelson cites Father John J. McNeill on this passage: Paul “apparently refers only to homosexual acts indulged in by those he considered to be otherwise heterosexually inclined; acts which represent a voluntary choice to act contrary to their ordinary sexual appetite” (p. 191). Even if this interpretation were valid, without “our modern psychosexual understanding” Paul could not have understood homosexual activity except as the perverse behavior of heterosexual persons, so he must here have been referring to all homosexual acts, not to “only” a certain category of them – what other category could he have recognized? Nor is such a voluntary act necessarily wrong, since Paul extolled chastity, which is surely “a voluntary choice to act contrary to their ordinary sexual appetite.” One might, for example, choose to have sex with a person of the “wrong” sex out of love for that person.

But this passage can also (and probably should) be read as a polemical sermon explaining “dishonorable passions” as a non-voluntary consequence of refusal to worship the “true” god. (Even then it remains the bigoted statement of a lying hustler.) The important thing is that Paul took it for granted, did not need to prove, that homosexual acts were “dishonorable,” “shameless,” “impurity.” If, as Mr. Nelson writes, “It is difficult to read into Paul’s words at this point the modern psychosexual understanding of the gay person…,” that is hardly surprising. Paul thought the Holy Spirit spoke through him, and probably considered authoritative the understanding he expounded. The “modern psychosexual understanding” he most likely would have called the working of a “base mind.” “Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve them who practice them” (Romans 1:32). If Paul gives us “a description of homosexual lust … but hardly an account of interpersonal same-sex love – about which Paul does not speak” (p. 191), that is probably because Paul would not have recognized the sexual expression of same-sex sex love as anything but lust.

Mr. Nelson says that Paul “looked at the Gentile world and saw idolatry but also saw homosexual practices and the prevalence of venereal disease – and he linked them firmly together” (p. 192). That linkage was no more inevitable, and no less bigoted, than the same conclusion drawn from the same sort of evidence by Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell in our own time. The implication of the passage from Romans, and of Mr. Nelson’s explication, is that those who do not worship Yahweh are all “filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, [and] malice” (Romans 1:29) – which is simply a lie. Certainly, “The moral climate of Hellenistic Rome was marred by various forms of sexual commerce and exploitation” (p. 191); the same has been true of every Christian society, but no Christian would blame that fact on Christianity. Yet Christians have never hesitated to blame pagan abuses on paganism; Paul was simply the first to go on record. And Mr. Nelson agrees with him: “The idolatrous dishonoring of God inevitably results in the dishonoring of persons, and faithfulness to God will result in sexual expression which honors the personhood of the other” (pp. 192-193, italics added), he says, which is a bigoted libel of all non-Christians and a whitewash of the many abuses committed by Christians.

Like the other liberals represented here, Mr. Nelson believes that sexuality is appropriately expressed only in committed, presumably monogamous, relationships. But marriage and its analogues are no guarantee against loneliness, “selfish sexual expression, cruelty, impersonal sex, obsession with sex, and against actions done without willingness to take responsibility for the consequences” (p. 201). Nor does the range of behaviors commonly called “promiscuity” exclude trust, “tenderness, respect for the other, and the desire for ongoing and responsible communion with the other” (ibid.). A truly radical examination of sexual ethics seems beyond Mr. Nelson’s powers, and he is probably the most liberal, the most accepting, and the best-informed writer in this collection.

In conclusion, then: Edward Batchelor Jr. has not achieved even his limited objectives. His selection of material is limited and probably biased against acceptance of homosexuality, and is a step backward from previous collections – not only The Same Sex, but also Gearhart and Johnson’s Loving Men/Loving Women and Oberholtzer’s Is Gay Good? (Mention should also be made of Alan Soble’s Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings [Littlefield, Adams and Co., 1980], an anthology which comes much closer to doing what Mr. Batchelor claims he set out to do.) To a Christian reader seeking “the necessary resources for reflection and determination,” one or all of those predecessors is recommended by me. To a non-Christian reader, the scripture-treading and equivocation exhibited in Homosexuality and Ethics mainly serve to confirm the ethical bankruptcy of Christianity, and that even the best Christians are mainly fiddling while faggots burn.