Thursday, August 14, 2008

Thinking Through Homosexuality

I've been sitting on this one for a while now. I am going to begin by laying out a few assumptions. Then I'm going to present a few thoughts and questions concerning the moral permissibility of the practice of homosexuality. I will follow this up with a discussion of a common line of argument against the moral permissibility of homosexual practice. Then I will extend an invitation to you to share your thoughts and concerns.

For the purposes of this discussion (please read those six words again, carefully; I'll wait....okay...finished?) I make the following three assumptions. First, I will assume that homosexual practice is at cross-purposes with God's design for human sexual behavior. Second, I will assume that one's sexual orientation--whether one is attracted to members of the same or opposite sex--is not, generally, under one's voluntary control. Just as I did not awake one day and decide to be attracted to members of the opposite sex, I assume that most homosexual men and women did not awake one day and decide to be attracted to members of the same sex. Finally, I am going to assume, based on the biblical witness, that under less than ideal conditions God sometimes makes accommodations to those condtions and makes allowances for activities and practices that run orthogonal to God's ultimate purposes and intentions.

I'll have more to say about the first and third assumptions as we proceed. For now, I want to note that the following practices would seem to be at cross-purposes with God's intentions for human relations (sexual and otherwise): war, divorce/remarriage, polygamy (I'm assuming for the sake of this discussion that God's design for human sexual practice was one man/one woman couplings until death does part the couple). In the case of the first two (war and divorce/remarriage), many of us believe that it is sometimes morally permissible to engage in these practices which are at cross-purposes with God's good intentions for human relations. The idea might run something like this: these practices, while not the best all things being equal, are sometimes the best all things considered. In other words, under ideal conditions (when things go the way originally intended) these practices would not be engaged in. Sadly, however, under less than ideal conditions, such as the actual conditions under which we live, engaging in these practices can be morally justified and so are morally permitted.

Interestingly, in the case of polygamy, the bible never explicitly forbids the practice, although most of the readers of this blog, and the communities to which we belong, surely would forbid it.

The question is obvious: what is the relevant dissimilarity between the practice of homosexuality and the practices of war and divorce/remarriage? Granting (again, for the sake of this discussion) that all of these practices are at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions, why does the bible, and why do many of us, make allowances for war and divorce/remarriage, holding them to be morally permissible under certain circumstances, but fail to make any such allowance for the practice of homosexuality?

That is a question worth pondering, and worth answering, but only after you've first pondered for a spell. Here is one common line of response:

Well the relevant difference is that in the case of war and divorce the
bible itself makes allowances whereas in the case of the practice of
homosexuality, this is not so; and in fact, in the case of homosexuality
the practice is explicitly forbidden in scripture. Since the scriptures
make no allowance for it neither should we.

First let me just note an interesting asymmetry. There are sexually immoral practices that the bible does not explicitly forbid (e.g., polygamy), but which we do; and there are sexually immoral practices the bible does explicitly forbid and, so the argument goes, so should we, unless the bible itself makes accommodation for them. That's interesting I think. It's interesting, first of all, that a sexually immoral practice like polygamy is not explicitly forbade in the bible. (I say 'sexually immoral' based on the assumption above that God's original design was one man/one woman.) And it's interesting, not to mention relevant, that there are practices that are at cross-purposes with God's ultimately good intentions for human (sexual) relations, and which God forbids, but which the scriptures (or God) makes allowances for and permits (e.g., divorce).

Here is what I find most interesting and what I would like for you to help me think through. There is an interesting and relevant similarity when it comes to the sorts of reasons behind a biblically based accommodation of war and divorce and the sorts of reasons that might be offered for extending an accommodation to the practice of monogamous homosexual unions.

Consider: why would a practice like war or divorce be morally permissible when such practices result in fragmentation, disintegration and human impoverishment, features of human existence that are far, far from God's good, life-enhancing purposes for creation? Well, sadly, in this broken world of ours, as I've already mentioned, these sorts of practices can be better, all things considered, than any of the available alternatives (e.g., in the case of divorce the alternatives might be perpetual abuse, a marriage partner whose addictions threaten the welfare of the family, etc.). Likewise, it might be argued, that the practice of monogamous homosexual unions can be better than any of the available alternatives, e.g., a life of serial partners, a life w/o love and companionship, a life of self-loathing and flagellation, etc. Might the words of St. Paul to heterosexuals apply here too: "Better to marry than to burn."

But why, it might be asked, doesn't the bible and church history make such allowances for the practice of homosexual behavior when it does for such a practice as divorce? If St. Paul had reasoned the way suggested in the previous paragraph, wouldn't he have made just such an allowance?

Here I wonder whether or not there is a relevant dissimilarity in the social structures that existed in the ancient world and those that exist now, differences that might provide an answer to our question. Let me put it this way, had the social structures that exist today existed in biblical times would the biblical writers (St. Paul or the OT writers) have made an allowance for the practice of monogamous homosexual unions? What I have in mind here is this. It seems to me to be the case, for example, that contemporary configurations of family would be scarcely recognized in the ancient world. I'm told in fact that in the early church (and I need to verify this; so, if you have some evidence I'd like to become acquainted w/it) people with multiple wives and children were welcomed into Christian community. Again, assuming such a practice is at cross-purposes with God's intentions for human sexual practice, one can only imagine the churches were faced with a conundrum: these people came to Christ already embedded in a certain family configuration. What was the church to say to such people, "I know you have three wives and seven children between you, but I'm afraid you must sever your family if you are to be a part of the community?"

It could be argued that we are in a similar sort of situation vis a vis homosexual families. Suppose a homosexual couple with children come to Christ and seek membership in a Christian community. Is the community to say, "You are welcome here; but, first you must sever your family."?

What may be well worth considering in such a discussion as this is whether the relevant comparison is not between war or divorce and the practice of homosexual behavior, but that between the practice of homosexual unions and the practice of polygamy in the bible and the early church. Granting (for the sake of argument) that both practices run orthogonal to God's intentions for human sexuality, might accommodations and allowances be made when it comes to homosexual unions in recognition of the less than ideal conditions under which we live?

And with that, I throw it open to you. I would greatly appreciate your help in thinking through these issues.