Saturday, January 06, 2007

If I Were A Figment of Your Imagination, I Would Be Better Looking

(My answer to my son's friendly claim that I was a product of his mind).

(This drew a wonderful scrunch-face from Mrs. Gruntled.)

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Free Society Can Accommodate a Homosexual Minority

I think everyone should have someone to share a life with – or at least the civil burdens and benefits thereof. What I would really like is a "Ruth and Naomi Law." Each person could designate one other person for all those civil purposes that you need to share with others – to make medical decisions, to visit you in the hospital, to inherit your stuff. For married people that designated Other would be your spouse. Unmarried people, though, could designate one person, too. As far as the law was concerned, this need not be a marriage-like relationship; the state would be quite uninterested in whether sex was involved. Such a law would also allow same-sex couples to share most of the civil burdens and benefits that married people share, though the status would be broader than either marriage or domestic partner unions.

It is more likely, though, that our governments would adopt civil unions, a much narrower "marriage-lite" status. This would accomplish nearly all of what proponents of gay marriage want.

I think a free society should offer civil unions to homosexual citizens who want them. Following the experience of the Scandinavian countries with civil unions, I don't think there would be a big rush to them once the first excitement died down. Denmark, which has the longest experience with civil unions, has seen only about a tenth of one percent of their population take advantage of the opportunity. Some people want gay marriage or the nearest approximation, but the numbers are not large – or stable. Even some of the most celebrated same-sex unions in this country, such as the test-case couples who won the right to marry in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, have already split up.

Moreover, in countries with civil unions, more heterosexual couples use them than homosexual. Why they don't just go ahead and get married is somewhat mysterious. Still, I think they can also be accommodated in a free society.

Robby George has mounted a powerful natural law argument that the law should only recognize marriage of a man and a woman because "the law is a teacher." The law, he argues, should not only reflect social conditions, it should shape them. I can almost go with him here, but I think the line that he draws between legal marriage of a sterile heterosexual couple and an illegal union of two homosexuals is just too fine, or two dependent on extra-constitutional metaphysics, to really fly in America.

Some think that civil unions will undermine marriage. I think this is true. I do not think, though, that they would undermine marriage very much – not nearly as much, for example, as no-fault divorce laws have. Even so, I agree that there is some injustice in married people enjoying some benefits that homosexuals cannot enjoy. Righting this injustice by offering the civil union status is worth some erosion of marriage – especially since, in practice, not very many homosexual couples are likely to actually make use of it.

The Presbyterian Church, and other mainline churches, have long supported civil rights for homosexuals, including civil unions. There is no contradiction in saying, as nearly all such churches do, that homosexual practice is a sin and cannot be approved in the church, yet at the same time supporting homosexual civil rights. The church has one constitution, and civil society has another, more limited constitution. The church follows its own law in church matters, such as whom it will ordain and whom it will join together in marriage. The church also witnesses to society, and supports a broad accommodation of all kinds of freedoms for citizens under the civil laws.

Civil unions of same-sex couples could form a good-enough institution in society and, with more caveats, in the church. And good enough is good enough.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Church Can Live with Homosexual Sinners the Way it Lives With Other Kinds of Sinners

Here, I think, we come to a centrist position that has been missing in the polarized debate. Let me start with the common ground the mainline denominations already have. Homosexual orientation is not a sin. Homosexual practice is not a bar to membership in the church. On this both sides in the mainline church debate agree.

The Bible says homosexual practice is a sin. On this the conservatives are right. But some conservatives go way overboard in saying that it is among the worst of sins.

I think homosexuality is a sin like divorce, not a sin like sacrificing children to idols. The Bible strongly condemns divorce, and Jesus does so most of all. The Presbyterian Church had a significant debate about how to deal with the biblical condemnation of divorce, and changed its position in the middle of the last century. Divorce is no longer a bar to being a minister or elder.

The church did not change its teaching that divorce is a sin. Each divorce is a tragedy, to be regretted and repented of. But sometimes, the church concluded, it is the least-bad option available to a person or a couple. They are enjoined to repent, and sin no more. They may even remarry in the church, and serve in all its offices.

By making this pastoral accommodation to divorce, the church is not saying that divorce is a private matter, or just another lifestyle choice that is as good as any other. Some people may even be born with very difficult personalities, but I have never heard the argument that such people have a natural inclination to divorce, and therefore ought to act on their inclination.

I believe the church could accommodate homosexual practice in the same way that it has accommodated divorce, without abandoning its standards.

The church should promote and develop ways to help people work around their inclination to homosexual practice, just as the church promotes and develops many pastoral strategies to help people work around their inclination to divorce. The successful ministries that help people deal with their homosexual inclinations don't try to change peoples' orientations so much as help them to work around their inclinations successfully. This is much the way Alcoholics Anonymous helps alcoholics change their behavior, rather than trying to remake their whole orientation.

The church recognizes, though, that sometimes divorce is the least-bad alternative when a couple's attempt to practice marriage has failed. The church even goes so far as to sanction remarriages after divorce, in the hopes of helping to mend the broken. If all involved acknowledge that the best practice would be chastity and fidelity within the first marriage, the church can live with a good-enough second best of chastity and fidelity within a second marriage. In the same way, I believe, if all involved acknowledge that the best practice would be no homosexual practice, the church can live with a good-enough second best of chastity and fidelity within a marriage-like committed union.

It may appear that I am recommending a huge change in the church's position with this last point, but I am not really. The issue for the church has not been what precise sexual acts anyone is up to. In fact, the church really does not want to know the details of your sex life (and I certainly don't want to know). Instead, what the church has been concerned about all along is to have the biblical standards acknowledged as real standards. This means that we try to live within them, repent of lapses, and heartily endeavor to mend our ways. This is true of all sin, not just the sexual ones.

The issue is not whether the church can live with sinners, homosexual or otherwise. Everyone is a sinner. The whole church is made of sinners, including all of the church's officers. As a gay Unitarian minister I know put it, "The Bible has hundreds of passages against heterosexual sin, and six against homosexual sin. You wrestle with your hundreds, and I will wrestle with my six."

Let me take this argument out of the realm of the hypothetical. What I am arguing for is already the standard of most mainline Protestant denominations, including my own. The only part that has not been clarified is the last point – whether two homosexuals living together in a committed relationship can be good enough if they acknowledge that they should try to restrain their sexual practice. The acknowledgement of the church's standard, and repentance when we slip, is all that the church has asked of its officers.

This is a common ground we can reach.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Small Minority Are Born With Homosexual Orientation

I have read the classic sociological and biological studies, and met enough gays and lesbians, to be convinced that there is some kind of physical basis for a homosexual orientation in some people.

Kinsey came up with the famous estimate that about 10% of the population is exclusively homosexual. More recent studies, especially that by Laumann and the Chicago team, give a more accurate picture: 3% of the population (2 – 4% of men, and 1 – 3% of women) are exclusively homosexual. 3% of the U.S. population is about 9 million people. That is a small percentage, but a sizable number of individuals. They are concentrated in cities, where Kinsey did his work, which is why he inadvertently over-estimated the homosexual percentage in the total population.

There have been tantalizing studies that have found biological correlates of homosexual orientation, but no one knows why some people have it. There also seem to be more biological correlations for gay men than for lesbians. For example, boys born at the end of a sequence of brothers are much more likely to be homosexual; the same is not true for girls in a sequence of sisters. I am not a biologist, I just read their studies. It seems to me that there is probably not a "gay gene." There may well be something important in the sequence of prenatal hormone washes that babies get in the womb which has a great deal to do with how our brains are oriented. In the vast majority of people, brain orientation matches the rest of our anatomy. In a small percentage of people, though, the correlation comes out differently.

I am also persuaded by the homosexual friends, colleagues, neighbors, and acquaintances that I have had over the years that some people are "born that way." From the coming-out narratives that I know, this seems to be more true of men than women. In general, men tend to be more polarized in all kinds of characteristics, whereas women are more likely to be distributed across a spectrum. Women are more likely to switch orientations than men; there does not seem to be a male equivalent of the "hasbian."

More mysteriously, there does seem to be a correlation between homosexual orientation and certain character traits and skills. Here we are way out on a scientific limb. In my experience, lesbians tend to be tougher-minded and more competitive than other women. Gay men, famously, tend to be more musically and aesthetically talented than the average man. The queer eye is different than the straight guy's eye. I have no idea why this would be so, and maybe I have been misled by stereotypes.

However, and this is a very big however, biological orientation does not settle the moral question. Just because you are born with an inclination to do something does not mean that you should. As a biologist once pointed out to me, if you are born with the breast cancer gene, that does not mean you should start smoking to make sure it expresses itself. We all have all kinds of orientations and inclinations. Some are good and some are not. Our individual morality, and our social ethics, are concerned with which of our inclinations we should develop habits to promote, and which we should develop habits to control. To take an important example, people as a whole, and nearly all individuals, have strong sexual desires. If we acted on every sexual desire we ever had, the result would be bad for us individually and bad for society. We create all kinds of social institutions to channel our strong sexual desires into socially useful practices, because they can so easily become destructive.

Most people have a natural heterosexual orientation. Some people have a natural homosexual orientation. Neither group should simply act on their orientation. How we should regulate our sexual orientation is one of the most important things that we have social institutions for.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Bible Says Homosexual Practice is Sinful

The biblical argument has two parts. First, there are the clear condemnations of homosexual practice. Second is the clear message that heterosexual marriage is the only proper place for sex. Nothing in the Bible suggests acceptance of homosexual practice as well. It is important to say at the outset that the Bible talks about homosexual practice, not homosexual orientation or "homosexuality," a concept only invented in modern times.

Genesis 19 and Judges 19 – Sodom and Gomorrah and the parallel story about the rape of the Levite – clearly show homosexual rape of guests as a horrible thing. The rape, and the gross mistreatment of guests, are reason enough to condemn the bad people in these stories. But I also think that the fact that a homosexual rape was the outrage that the bad people committed is in the story to show that they were as bad as they could possibly be. This is evidence of the Bible's condemnation of homosexual acts, though not proof-positive that it is condemned in all cases.

Leviticus 18:22 in the King James Version states: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." Leviticus 20:13 is similar. Some say this is only meant to condemn pagan temple prostitution. A similar reading applies to Deuteronomy 23:17, 1 Kings 14:24, 15:12 & 22:46 and 2 Kings 23:7. I read these as I do the Sodom and Gomorrah story: they are not definitive law for Christians against homosexual sex; on the other hand, they say to me that the Bible writers and readers took it for granted that homosexual practice was disgusting, especially for men.

Some of the purity rules of the Old Testament were set aside in the New. The condemnation of homosexual practice, on the other hand, was renewed in the New Testament. 1Corithians 6:9-10 says that the makokoi and the arsenokoitai are unrighteous. The King James version translates these terms as "effeminate" and "abusers of themselves with mankind." The latter sentiment is repeated in 1 Timothy 1. I don't know what exactly was meant by these terms, and I don't think anyone else can offer a definitive interpretation. The words are too rare, and the possible range of meanings is too wide. Clearly, though, both are bad, and they have something to do with gay acts.

The major text on this subject in the whole Christian Bible is Romans 1:26-27:
"For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet."

I agree with Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a Presbyterian minister, that this is the text that can't really be interpreted away.

The positive side of the Bible's message about sex is that sex within marriage is good, especially for making, with God's help, the great gift of children. This is the vision that is reiterated from Adam and Eve onward.

Some things that the Bible condemns in some places, it seems to allow in others. The passages about women keeping silent in churches had to be weighed against those talking about women prophesying and praying in order to get the total biblical picture. This was why the Presbyterian Church, and many other Protestant denominations, came to accept women's ordination after a long interpretive argument. The same goes for divorce, which I think is the interpretive problem that most resembles the homosexual question. Divorce is condemned all the time, but tolerated under certain conditions. I do not see any parallel texts in the Bible even tolerating homosexual practice.

I therefore follow the teaching of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and nearly every other Christian body on earth: homosexual practice is a sin.

BUT, and this is a very important point, we all commit sins. We are all habitual sinners. Being sinners does not prevent us from being officers of the church, or good citizens, and it is certainly no obstacle to being a church member. That is a point for another blog post.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A Centrist Christian Approach to the Homosexual Issue

This week I will give you my considered judgment on an issue that vexes Christians: what to think about homosexuality and homosexual practice, in the church and in society. I have thought, studied, and written about this question quite a bit, in this blog and elsewhere. Now I want to lay out a few conclusions, both to clear my head and to invite your comment. Here are my four main conclusions:

The Bible says homosexual practice is sinful.

A small minority of people are born with a homosexual orientation.

The Church can live with homosexual sinners the way it lives with other kinds of sinners.

A free society can accommodate a homosexual minority through approximations of majority institutions.

These four points will be the subject of the next four blogs. I will elaborate what I mean by these conclusions, and why I came to them, during the rest of the week.

Let me say one more word of introduction, though. The problem of homosexual practice is a real problem for anyone who believes the Bible and who believes in a free society. Those who favor wholesale approbation of homosexuality in all its forms and social consequences run up against a stone wall of abhorrence in Scripture. Those who favor wholesale condemnation of homosexuality in all its forms and social consequences run up against the mercy of God for all sinners and the presumption of toleration for all kinds of people in a free society. Hence, Christian centrists must wrestle with the question.