Reluctantly posting some thoughts on the Bible and Homosexuality. I guess I had to get around to it eventually…
Saint Jerome Reading a Letter, by Georges de La Tour (c. 1616 to 1627)
Last week I was reading an an online debate between Catholic columnist and blogger Andrew Sullivan (well known for being both gay & conservative) and Sam Harris, the somewhat militant atheist and author of the best-sellers Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith.
Harris threw down an especially challenging and provocative indictment when he wrote:
Many religious moderates imagine, as you do, that there is some clear line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn't. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur'an is not a moderate. Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac-to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, one can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love one's neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim, and the more fully one grants credence to these books, the more fully one will be committed to the view that infidels, heretics, and apostates are destined to be ground up in God's loving machinery of justice.
How does one "integrate doubt" into one's faith? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights-scientific ("You mean the world isn't 6000 years old? Yikes"), mathematical ("pi doesn't actually equal 3? All right, so what?"), and moral ("You mean, I shouldn't beat my slaves? I can't even keep slaves? Hmm"). Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously. So why not take these books less seriously still? Why not admit that they are just books, written by fallible human beings like ourselves?
Sullivan responded with:
Blogger, please. In many ways, the source of much of today's religious moderation is taking scripture more seriously than the fundamentalists. Take the Catholic scholar Garry Wills. Read his marvelous recent monographs on Jesus and Paul and you will see a rational believer poring through the mounds of new historical scholarship to get closer and closer to who Jesus really was, and what Paul was truly trying to express. For me, the deconstruction of a crude notion of Biblical inerrantism is not a path to a weaker faith but to a stronger one, unafraid of history, of truth, of the past, or the inevitable confusion that the very human followers of a divine intervention created after his death and resurrection. I find in this unsatisfying scriptural mess very human proof of a remarkable event - the most remarkable event, in my view - in the history of humankind.
I think it is especially interesting that Sullivan brings up Garry Wills here. In his book What Jesus Meant, Wills describes how Jesus identified himself explicitly with outcasts such as lepers and tax collectors and others who would have been considered to be in violation of the Hebrew Purity and Holiness Codes in force at the time. Wills offers the opinion that homosexuals surely would have been seen as being in violation of those Holiness Codes, and that Jesus just as surely would have reached out to them specially. Wills wrote:
In the case of homosexuality, the passive partner mixes with his male body the female role. In the Holiness Code, women are unclean anyway, because of their menstrual function. But this fictional "woman" who cannot menstruate is even more unclean. Those who have been anxious to keep this taboo alive in our time are selective in what parts of the Holiness Code they continue to observe from the Book of Leviticus. That is the point of a letter I was shown that came from the Internet (source unidentified-I would be grateful to anyone who can inform me on this). The letter is addressed to a Protestant evangelical who believes in literal reading of the Bible:
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's law. I have learned a great deal from you, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18.22 clearly states it to be an abomination-end of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God's laws and how to follow them.
1. Leviticus 25.44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?
2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21.7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15.19-24). The problem is: how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor to the Lord (Lev 1.9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35.2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev 11.10) it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? Are there degrees of abomination?
7. Leviticus 21.20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to ad mit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20 or is there some wiggle room here?
8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Leviticus 19.27. How should they die?
9. I know from Leviticus 11.6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19.19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them (Lev 24.10-16)? Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws (Lev 20.14)?
I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.
This is very clever and makes the perfectly valid point that as Christians we are not bound by the Levitical codes, and that as Gentiles, the Law was never meant for us to begin with, but in a way, he is begging the question. I don’t know what the hypothetical Protestant minister would have said in reply, but my guess would be that he might have responded with “OK, forget what the the Old Testament says about homosexuality. Let’s look at what the New Testament says about it…”
I’ve seen various writers who are in basic agreement with Wills on this matter offer various counter-explanations for what appear on the face of them to be anti-homosexual passages in the Bible. I’ve read for example, that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as described in Genesis was not homosexuality, but the inhospitality of the people of Sodom in threatening to rape Lot's guests. By and large, I find these interpretations to be strained, unconvincing, and a matter of wishful thinking – A matter of looking for something in the texts that really isn’t there, regardless of how well-intentioned and inclusive the motives might be. Skipping to the New Testamant, here are a couple of the passages that are considered most relevant:
While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes. Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies.
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper.
I Corinithians 6:9-10
Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
The best that I’ve seen liberal exegetes come up with in these instances is to suggest that St. Paul was calling homosexuality “unnatural”, but not necessarily “sinful”, or alternately, that what Paul is condemning is in fact what is unnatural… therefore, what is really being condemned are not acts carried out by people of homosexual orientation, but acts carried out by people going against what is natural for them (i:e, homosexual behavior being carried out by heterosexuals).
Again, I’m doubtful about such interpretations. The whole issue of a distinction between orientation vs. behavior would probably have been lost on Paul. I think we always have to be aware of the dangers of anachronism when we look at the Bible. It is one thing to say that Scripture always needs to be looked at anew for fresh insights by each generation, and that the Bible is full of inexhaustible truths waiting to be found, but it is another thing altogether to actually retroject our views as if they had actually been the views of the authors themselves. I think it is fairly well documented that both Palestinian Jews and Hellenistic Jews of the 1st Century abhorred the homosexuality, fornication, cultic prostitution, abortion, and infanticide that was commonly seen in the pagan world at the time. For their part, the Gentiles considered the Jewish practice of circumcision to be absolute barbarism, and resented being excluded from table fellowship with Jews due to dietary laws. We know about the contemptuous attitudes towards homosexuality from looking at rough contemporaries of Paul’s like Philo of Alexandria. As a Jew of Hellenistic influences himself, I see no reason to believe that Paul would have felt any differently. Most of the polemic in Paul’s letters was based upon the controversies of the day surrounding Gentile sexual practices, circumcision, kosher and non-kosher foods, and table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles (or the lack thereof).
My progressive friends here are by-and-large comfortable with the idea of gay marriage and the validity of sexual relationships between committed same-sex couples. I have other friends here who are not anti-gay, but adhere to the teachings of the Church on these matters. I don’t feel comfortable writing about homosexuality. I’ve done very little of it here. I’m sort of a live-and-let-live kind of person, and looking back over my own life, I can hardly hold myself up as having been the model of sexual purity and sinlessness. I realize as well, that marriage presents me with an option that the Church does not reserve for homosexuals, and this must be a nearly unbearably painful way for a gay person of faith to live.
Furthermore, as I’ve stated previously, I don’t claim to understand homosexuality fully, or what causes it. Do I think it’s “normal”? Well, who among us can claim to be really “normal” anyway? If you really press me for an answer on it, I’d probably have to say no… I don’t think so. It does seem like a case of crossed wiring to me. I don’t think there is going to be a gay gene found, like there are genes for eye color or hair color. From what I can see, there seem to be quite a few scholarly articles that indicate that the introduction or absence of certain hormones at key points of neonatal development may have an effect on sexual orientation. All babies start out with female sex characteristics (at least in appearance) before differentiation. It is the infusion of male hormones at key points of pregnancy that makes us male. It also has an effect on our brains. A lot of external factors can affect hormonal balances in our bodies. Is this the area to look? Take religion out of it for a moment. If someone wanted to look at it from a strictly scientific, Darwinian point-of-view, homosexuality doesn’t seem to make much sense, especially if you take the extreme Darwinian position that the body is just basically a vehicle to propagate the survival of your selfish genes.
I’m not gay-bashing here. How do I say all this without appearing hateful…? As a father of six, I know that I wouldn’t turn my back on any of my children if they turned out to be gay. I know I wouldn’t be able to explain the cause of it either. I’ve seen it happen in families where it was the very last thing they would have expected. I’ve seen those families have to modify their views on certain things as a result. I know it has nothing to do with the tripe about distant fathers and domineering mothers and singing show-tunes when you’re a kid.
While I don’t condone gay-bashing and the demonization of homosexuals, I don’t think it is especially necessary to ennoble them beyond reason either. According to some advocates, you’d think they’d make for better marriages and better parents than heterosexuals. People are people, all subject to the same weaknesses. In the case of gay marriage and adoption, I see no reason why gay people would be any more or less loving and caring as spouses and parents, but on the other hand, I see no reason why they would be any more or less abusive and neglectful either.
Just a couple of other thoughts… I hope they don’t come out the wrong way… We all come to our positions and views partly as a result of our own experiences. I do think that some women tend to take a more benign view of male homosexuality than a lot of men do. I started working city jobs in Boston when I was about 16 years old. I was of slim build and looked somwhat young for my age. I was startled and taken aback at how often I was approached by gay men. As I grew older, the less frequently it happened. I’m not an expert on homosexuality, but as a male, I do qualify as an expert on male sexuality. Having been married for nearly 15 years, and having had a few long term relationships prior to that, I think that I can at least say say that I’ve learned that female sexuality is very different from male sexuality. Homosexual males are still males, and their sexuality is still male sexuality. I do think that a plausible argument can be made that society does have a vested interest in putting some checks and restrictions around unbridled male sexuality.
I know many heterosexual men who can count the number of sexual partners they’ve had in their lives on their hands. I know some who’ve had tens of sexual partners. I don’t think I know any who’ve been in the hundreds or thousands (now we are getting into the territory of the legendary exploits of professional athletes and rock stars). Now, I know plenty of men who would have liked to have had hundreds or even thousands of women, who wished they could have had that many partners, but up until now, women haven’t been into playing that game (although with the new mores around “hooking up”, who the heck knows…). If we are honest with ourselves, I think we do need to acknowledge that tens of sexual partners might in fact be quite common for gay men, and that within a certain sizeable subset, hundreds (or even thousands) is not unheard of. In other words, this isn’t so much a criticism of gay men per se, as it is a recognition that gay men have the opportunity and the temptation to act with each other the way that straight men wish they could act with women. Therefore, this isn’t necessarily an attack on homosexual men but an acknowledgement of what unrestricted male sexuality can look like. I can well imagine that if there were rest stops along Route 95 where women were willing to have free, quick, unrestricted, unattached sex with men who were complete strangers, there would be a line of cars going up 95 as far as the northernost tip of Maine down to the southernmost tip of Florida. In this regard, perhaps we should congratulate gay men on their relative restraint….
I realize that those who support gay marriage aren’t advocating or excusing behaviors of the most extreme kind. I also realize there are plenty of monogomous or relatively monogomous people out there of all kinds, but as far as the extremes go, does that understanding give us the option to look at Paul’s words anew? Is it the profligate behavior that Paul is really talking about? As I said previously, orientation as opposed to behavior is probably something Paul wouldn’t have understood, even as divinely inspired the texts happen to be. Is it the heterosexual acting out in a homosexual manner that he was talking about, such as men in prison using other men as an outlet or as a means of asserting domination over them, all the way to female college students who sleep with their female friends because it has become trendy and fashionable (a practice that I hear is becoming more commonplace)? Or, if we want to become more accepting and inclusive of same-sex partnerships within Christianity, are we willing to say that Paul may have been just wrong about certain things?
Is there a precedent for the latter? Let’s look a slavery as an example… It is commonly and universally taught by all Christian denominations today that slavery – the buying, selling, and ownership of another human being – is intrinsically evil in and of itself. This was not always the case, since it is not explicitly found in the Bible. In the American South, prior to the Civil War, various pastors were able to make a coherent defense of the institution of slavery using biblical citations. Paul, in his beautiful letter to Philemon, urges him to treat his slave well, but not to free him. De facto acceptance of slavery can be found all over the scriptures. Thankfully, our way of interpreting scripture on that particular point has either changed or bowed to tradition.
How flexible is the Bible, and how elastic should it be today? How far can Christians go and claim fidelity to authoritative scripture and retain any sense of credibility? If we “stretch” it, are we acting like Sam Harris describes, or are we acting like Andrew Sullivan describes?