Nature, Culture, Right, and Holiness

Isaiah 25:6-9

Revelation 21:1-6a

John 11:32-44

For the last two weeks I have been preaching on how the Church should handle passionate and divisive conflicts among Christians about moral issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and the war in Iraq. Other religious communities also struggle with such conflicts. Last week I talked about the appeal to scripture in the conflict over homosexuality and argued that the very few mentions of homosexual acts in the Bible reflect cultural assumptions about dominance and subservience between men and women that themselves are wrong and that should be corrected by the Christian gospel. Unfortunately, because of a technical difficulty with our phone line, last week’s service was not broadcast; copies of that sermon can be obtained from the Marsh Chapel office or from our website. This morning I want to consider other arguments about homosexuality that do not have to do particularly with Biblical references.

Homosexuality is usually claimed to be unnatural by those who oppose it, and this claim is often a very deeply held emotional conviction, a gut feeling. Most hold this conviction because they have been taught it. When we ask whether it is justified, however, the first question has to be what is meant by “unnatural?” Perhaps one or more of several things, and the Church needs to sort them out. The biblical discussion last week considered the case that social custom dictates that all sexual relations should be of dominant over submissive partners and that men should be dominant and women submissive. In this case male homosexuality is “unnatural” because one partner needs to assume a submissive role, and female homosexuality would require one to assume a dominant role. If, to the contrary, the social custom emphasizes equality and reciprocity instead of a hierarchy of dominance, homosexual relations would not be unnatural in this sense. In many parts of the Western world, we have in fact substituted suppositions of equality and reciprocity for the ancient world’s hierarchical assumptions, and often have written them into law.

But same-sex desire might be unnatural in a deeper biological sense. Many in the ancient world believed that each thing has its own purpose or final cause, as Aristotle put it (though not everyone expressed the view as carefully as Aristotle). The sole purpose of sex, according to many of the ancients and some of our contemporaries, is procreation. They say that any use of sex for purposes other than procreation is unnatural because contrary to its purpose. Following this line, many Christians have condemned contraception and solitary sex, as well as gay and lesbian sex. Aristotle and the other philosophers who believed procreation is the purpose of sex saw it in the larger picture of the continuity of the species.

Contemporary biologists agree, of course, that sexual behavior is necessary for the continuity of the species, but with a significant shift from ancient thinking. We now understand sex and continuity in terms of populations, not individuals. A given group or population needs sufficient new births to fill its ecological and social niche. When the niche expands or a disaster decimates the population, more children are needed, and in hard times the birth rate needs to go down. Within a population, however, not everyone, or every couple, needs to have children, so long as the group as a whole produces enough children for its niche. So whereas the ancient world put a terrible onus on barren women, we do not, so long as the population has enough fertile women for an appropriate birth rate. Moreover, not every sexual act of a couple that wants children and can have them needs to be potentially fertile, only enough so as to have their children. Hence contraception might well be used to time the birth of children by a couple who wants to have many. It is not biologically unnatural for some people never to marry or have procreative sex. By the same token it is not unnatural in the modern biological sense for some people to be homosexual and to have sex that is never procreative so long as others in the population reproduce so as to fill the niche. Non-reproductive sexual impulses, including same-sex ones, have a biologically natural place in a larger reproductive population. Christians who believe homosexuality is contrary to biological nature need to come to terms with the modern definition of nature in population biology.

If not biologically unnatural, homosexuality might be culturally unnatural, as so many people argue, perhaps not distinguishing this from biological nature. Societies organize themselves into families, and families are intergenerational. The natural cultural expectation is that one’s children will have children. Some of the deepest opponents of homosexuality I know argue from bitterness about the fact their children will not give them grandchildren. To fit into organized society by living out an intergenerational family seems natural. That’s how ordinary life defines itself for most people. The pull of intergenerational social roles is so great that many gay and lesbian couples want to serve as parents and do so by adoption, artificial insemination, or temporary heterosexual liaisons, perhaps even marriages. Gay and lesbian couples sometimes become parents in part to satisfy their own parents’ longing for grandchildren.

That intergenerational family life is a culturally natural way to live does not mean, however, that it is the only culturally natural way to live. I know of no society in which everyone gets married to have children. When Jesus defined marriage as a man leaving his family to become one flesh with his wife there was no mention of children. Most societies have celibate social roles, and also roles for sexual life without or apart from marriage. Many heterosexual couples marry who do not have children, for one reason or another, and there are natural places in our society for couples like that. Why are there not natural places in our society for gay and lesbian people to live together as couples or in other social arrangements? There is no reason, so long as those social places do not inhibit the general welfare and richness of society. Why should we not enrich social diversity with social roles that fulfill the happiness of gay and lesbian people?

The moral weight of some social roles such as marriage, is more complex than I have indicated so far here, and next week I shall talk about the normative ritual character of social roles in connection with marriage.

Some people object to homosexual life, or life-styles, on moral grounds. They complain about pornography, violent abuse, pedophilia, shallow promiscuity, or sex acts that seem gross to them. Surely many issues of sexual behavior have important moral dimensions, but they apply equally to heterosexual and homosexual behavior. By far the most pornography, abuse, pedophilia, and promiscuity is heterosexual. Like heterosexual behavior, homosexual behavior can be immoral, degraded, and in deep need of amendment and redemption, not because of its sexual orientation but because of how that orientation is lived out. As to sex acts that seem gross to some people, they do not seem gross to those who find fulfillment in them.

In sum, whereas I argued last week that the Bible does not warrant believing homosexuality to be intrinsically sinful or immoral, I’ve argued now that is it not sinful or immoral because it is biologically unnatural or because societies ought to regard it as culturally unnatural. Gay and lesbian people might be thieves and murderers, disrespectful to parents and abusive of partners, lazy, gluttonous, drunkards, prideful, deceitful, and ready to use sex for demeaning and selfish purposes, just like straight people. From thes
e vices they and everyone else need redemption. But gay and lesbian people should feel no guilt at all for their same-sex desire as such, I believe. They are no less creatures of God in their sexuality than those with other-sex desire, and both together can contribute to the flourishing of the human community.

The Christian Church, like most other religions, has inculcated guilt and self-hate into gay and lesbian people and that has been a grievous mistake. As the Church should apologize for its complicity to those who have been enslaved because the Bible endorses slavery, and to women because the Bible endorses their humiliating subordination to men, so it should apologize to gay and lesbian people whom it has demeaned on mistaken biblical and philosophic grounds. Thank God, through such contrition the Church still can carry on God’s work of redemption.

Now I’m sorry that the clarity of this conclusion cannot stand by itself. Giving recognition, respect, freedom, power, and support to gay and lesbian people is not the only value to which we must attend, however important and overdue it is. Many competing values also exist, for harmony in families, the Church, and society, that are threatened by a challenge to the cultural assumption that homosexuality is sinful. The values having to do with social harmony are extremely complicated and I shall address some of them next week in talking about marriage. So long as many people believe that homosexuality is sinful, and do so out of deep convictions lodged in the assumptions through which they see the world, any challenge to that stigmatization of gays and lesbians threatens family, Church, and social order. For all their insistence that their lives are lived now and that they cannot wait generations for cultural change, many gay and lesbian people themselves are deeply pained by the hurt their sexual identity causes their families, and to a lesser extent perhaps their church and community. To know that your parents are disgraced, embarrassed and shamed by your socially stigmatized sexual identity causes double disgrace, embarrassment and shame, as well as anger, pity, and potential alienation. Because they love their families, churches, and communities, or would like to, most gay and lesbian people, like straight people who agree with their cause, know the social problem is to keep the faith with what is right while tolerating the compromises of a slow rate of cultural change toward holiness.

How slow? When I was a child growing up in St. Louis, my father tried to explain the racial prejudice that produced segregated water fountains and toilets in public places. When he was growing up, he said, everyone just knew that left-handedness was the sign of a deformed character, and in his grade school the left-handed children had their left arm tied down so that they had to use the right hand for writing. In the modern 1940s and 50s of my grammar school education, we knew that to be a false, silly, and harmful prejudice. Many of my classmates and their parents, however, had an equally false, silly, and harmful prejudice about the inferiority of African Americans, or rather about the superiority of white people that was so easily contaminated by intimate contact, as my father put it. He told me that within my lifetime, the racial prejudice that made the sharing of drinking fountains and toilets seem unspeakably gross to my white friends would fall away, and he was right. Were he alive today my father would say that within the lifetime of our college students the prejudice against gay and lesbian people will fall away, not completely, of course, any more than racism is completely gone, but to a very large degree. We see that happening as more people come to know “out” gays and lesbians, especially within their own family and intimate communities. As Christians concerned with the moral right for gays and lesbians on the one hand and for holiness for the whole people of God on the other, we pray that the changes in false cultural assumptions and unjust social arrangements come soon.

But we also pray that the rights and pains of those who are still convinced that homosexuality is sinful, with their personal and communal identity depending on that conviction, genuinely be respected and loved. Only in this way can the Church respect the depth of this moral conflict.

While we are waiting for this New Jerusalem to come down out of heaven, however long the wait, we should acknowledge that gay and lesbian people have been forced to live in the Church, and elsewhere, as if under a shroud. They have had either to leave the table or to deny that they are fully alive as sexual beings. Now is the time to proclaim to them the redeeming word of God. If you will pardon the pun, which I fully intend, John’s Jesus “cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” Isaiah said, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” Behold, the feast of the Lord. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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