Saturday, May 21, 2005

Homosexuality and the Church (addendum)

Bonnie, thank you for your thoughtful comment on my post "Homosexuality and the Church." You take the Bible as seriously as it should be taken; you keep the focus on the Bible and I appreciate that.

I can share something right off the bat, which was covered in my Bible study this past week, on the issue of judging. You mentioned that the original language used different versions of the word “judge,” and that’s true. Directly after the passage on homosexuality and other sins, as you mentioned, Paul proceeds not to a final judgment of these men and women that he has observed in homosexuality and in many sins, but instead tells his listeners that they, too, do these same things and therefore have no right to judge.

According to the handout our group was given, Paul uses the Greek word krino which includes the meanings: to distinguish; decide; try; condemn. He does not use the Greek word krisis, which means decision for or against; justice. So his statement reads, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on [condemn] someone else; for at whatever point you judge [condemn] the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment [condemnation] do the same things.”

We can conclude that judgment is not prohibited if what we mean is justice, as well as simply making a decision for or against. We do that all the time, when we judge that milk has gone bad, that being late for an appointment is wrong, or that certain crimes like murder must be punished. Indeed we do it when we say that judging someone else is wrong. I find myself, in conversations with friends, often disputing the notion that life can be lived without judgments. But I feel that a good number of these disputes must happen out of miscommunication, because English does not have two words for judge; when some people say judge, and especially when Christians use that word in communication with non-Christians, what the listener will hear is krino, not krisis. We all agree that our court system can judge, that everyone is free to judge their own road throughout the day so long as it remains within the law, and that arrogant personal judgment is bad. It’s just that Christians do have a particularly famous (though not a unique) history of mixing up the two forms of judgment; you did a good job, I feel, of keeping the two things separate.

So I do believe that to be really involved in the world, to love your neighbor, you have to care enough to disagree with them and to say so; to disapprove; to judge that they are in good or bad situations; even to judge them as people, as when we say, “My friend has plenty of faults and he’s not perfect, but God bless him; and he’s still my friend, warts and all.”

I believe that homosexuals themselves are powerless, in a slightly different sense, to make a decision for or against homosexuality. I would go further and say that even if homosexuality was a free choice, there is no harm in it that I can see from direct observation, and no cause on that basis for others to interfere in such a private and vulnerable aspect as our human intimacies; but here I won’t focus on that argument, since it does not respond to your post; and in any case such reasoning tends to take us away from the Bible and its thoughts, toward such texts as the Constitution, with its own thoughts on things like private rights; I have another post about those issues. Here I want only to say that homosexuals are no more free to choose their desires than a straight person.

Desire is such a complex and even an uncertain topic that I hesitate to make any blanket statements about it. But some things should be said.

Desire seems like it can be cultivated. I can choose to take an interest in those things that my friends or family desire, and perhaps even come to desire or love those things myself. Perhaps what we are talking about here is more specifically taste, which may be a better word since it connotes superficial things: “I have a taste for certain wines”; “I have a taste for older movies”; etc. Some might say that a person can have a “taste for men” or a “taste for women.” But I don’t think so. It’s clear to me that I can have a taste for redheaded or blonde women, and that if I chose to cultivate those tastes I could indeed mold my desires that far; but it’s also clear to me that I can’t do away with my attraction to women, and that I don’t have an attraction to men. It’s abundantly clear that I have desired certain women, as well as the friendship of certain men, and that other men and women have left me indifferent or even repulsed; these are not mere tastes. I have no repulsion to the mere idea of sleeping with a man, and I have no experience from which to predict what that sex would be like; but if I were forced to sleep with a man, just as if I were forced to love a woman I did not love, I would encounter a resistance in myself so strong that I would know certain things beyond doubt. One, I would know how sacred our duty is to refrain from forcing others in anything, but particularly in private or intimate matters. Two, I would know that desire – not mere taste but our deepest desire, that thing which seems capable of hurting and lifting us more than anything on earth, which is to say, eros, or what we usually mean when we say “love” – cannot be cultivated.

I have known several bisexual women who desire both men and women; I’ve known one who stuck to men despite her feelings toward women. I do also think that there’s such a thing as “predominate” heterosexuality or homosexuality. Bisexuals often say that one sex attracts them more than the other. A straight person can have a homosexual experience that is largely negative or positive; and that is only to be expected, since such an experience includes physical sensations that all human beings find pleasurable, not to mention also the fear and hurt that can accompany any sexual experience (any human experience, period).

Some people report also a consuming need to change their sex. Sexuality is so complicated that I think we have to concede that desire exists along a continuum, when we speak of what is given to us; what we actually have control over is a much smaller continuum. If you’re like me, you desire women; if you’re gay, you desire people of the same sex; if you’re bisexual, you desire both and can “choose” one or the other; but all of us find it exceptionally difficult, perhaps even impossible, to change what we discover early on in life, so long as we’ve been open to its discovery and not repressing it. A bisexual person can choose to have sex with only one gender, but cannot choose to desire only one gender, and can make a “choice” in behavior only because restricting your sexual appetite to one gender does not force you into celibacy.

Whatever a person’s sexual, inner orientation, whatever their desire, we have to presume that they are reporting things beyond their own invention. We do not invent our genetic makeup; we can influence the patterns of our brain waves (our thoughts), and form new patterns up to a point, but basic desire is not something that a mere creature, as opposed to the Creator, can establish, extinguish, or transform. I can cultivate tastes, but as I said, if I had a “taste” for redheads, that by itself could not get me to sleep with one. My superficial tastes can influence who I sleep with, but if my libido were damaged or somehow fully inhibited – if I had no desire to sleep with women – mere red hair is not going to re-establish my desire. A man’s red hair, or generally his looks, will not establish in me a need to sleep with men if such a need is not already there. Similarly, I will not be forced to marry a redhead that I detested or could not respect.

Some Cambodians living under Pol Pot committed suicide because their oppressors forced them to marry someone not of their own choice, which is very telling given that their society was not like ours, and had not rejected the tradition of arranged marriages in favor of the Western, modern idea of romantic love; but let us even leave the question of force aside. I still observe that I desire some individuals and have an indifference to others, and that these things are not of my own making. All of us know how we feel overwhelming and persistent emotions for certain individuals, and close to nothing for others. On a deep level, it’s what we find in ourselves, given by the Creator – not something we create.

We now know that identical twins have had gay sexual orientation in common, while fraternal twins tend not to share sexual orientation, which suggests that the shared genes of identical twins are the cause. I think it’s also been discovered that identical twins who are separated still can share gay sexual orientation, despite different upbringings, and this tells us that sexual orientation is not a cultivated result of social conditioning anymore than it is the cultivated result of individual tastes.

As gays have come out, we’ve learned more about them than we ever knew, historically speaking. We’ve learned that they discovered their feelings as soon as sexual desire came up, long before they were able to make many conscious decisions at all, least of all mature sexual decisions. I did not choose to be straight at that age; it should be presumed that anyone else in a human body had equal experiences. Yet now scientists are finding homosexuality in every animal species whose sexual behavior has been studied closely; and this affirms the idea that sexual desire is deep-rooted and ancient, in terms of evolution – though I know that I am disagreeing here with creationists. Even so, all of us agree already that desire is something quite deep in the sense of belonging to the unconscious part of the brain. What we can choose belongs to the upper cortex, but desire for sex is located in the deep stem, in what some scientists call the primitive brain. Nothing in the Bible suggests to me that sexual desire is located in the higher brain; Paul even concedes this when he says that people can marry if they must, since that is preferable to burning. He suggested celibacy -- and such a noble choice must be a province of the higher brain -- but he did not suggest that desire itself could be extinguished in a celibate.

I do hear Paul saying that homosexuality is wrong, as I mentioned in my post. I don’t think we need to take that as a prescription for all time. The way I read the Bible, in my Catholic tradition, something can be written which is directly inspired by God because it needed to be heard in that time and place by its listeners; so universal application needs to be handled carefully. Inspiration, moreover, does not mean innerrancy. Inspired human beings still make errors – some of them merely minor errors in “factual” knowledge, errors which do not overthrow either the spiritual power of a verse or even other "factual" content in a verse. We need not presume that anything in the Bible is in error so long as it is consistent with observation. There would be no reason to doubt Paul or Leviticus if we found that homosexuals really were more sinful than others. I have mentioned possible historical reasons that Paul and the author of Leviticus spoke about homosexuality the way they did, but there would have been no need to look behind the text in that way unless our own observations were pushing us to do so. I have every reason to believe that Paul was faithfully reporting what he saw, since the pagan culture in which he found homosexuality really was degraded morally in many ways; but what he saw plainly contradicts what all honest judgment, free of krino, tells us today, namely that gays and lesbians do good things and worship Christ, unlike the people Paul is describing. You and I are on common ground where it comes to judging homosexuals as people; yet I know that many Christians, not to mention adherents of other religions, have judged homosexuals to be evil, in the process engaging in punishments which are themselves evil.

The way of reading the Bible that I have described really has a long tradition within Christianity. I’ll end with that. Aquinas summed it up this way:

First, the truth of Scripture must be held inviolable. Secondly, when there are different ways of explaining a Scriptural text, no particular explanation should be held so rigidly that, if convincing arguments show it to be false, anyone dare to insist that it still is the definitive sense of the text. Otherwise unbelievers will scorn Sacred Scripture, and the way to faith will be closed to them.

Thank you, again, Bonnie – particularly for taking Scripture seriously.

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