Thursday, 21 August 2014

Paul, Conversion, and Homosexuality

Exodus International has apologized for forty years of harm done to homosexual persons and shut its doors. Pope Francis has said that it is not his place to judge homosexual persons. Vicki Beeching, beloved Christian songstress, is gay. Reactionaries are all in a tizzy. What is happening to Christian values?

The answer is simple: they're winning out.

Let us go back to Paul. I'm not going to rehearse the arguments that have suggested that we have misread what Paul intended by his statements on homosexuality, as valid as these arguments might be. I'm going to say something that somewhat more radical, namely that Christian ethics and moral theology is only quite inadequately understood when conceived as the work of reading the biblical canon as if it were a law book. That this is the case should be clear from Paul's own statements about the letter of the law.

Of what do Christian ethics and moral theology consist, then? Well, here, again, Paul is of some help. Let us think about his conversion. I'm not talking about conversion from Judaism to Christianity: the reduction of the word "conversion" to movement from one well-defined religion to another, or in our era from no religion to a particular religion, evacuates the word of most of its meaning. No, I'm wearing to something like Lonergan's notion of conversion, which is to say of salutary breakthroughs in a person's subjectivity. Among such breakthroughs is indeed that which he calls "religious," by which he means a movement towards profound being-in-love, although we might better call this a Being-in-love: that is to say, through such conversion one's being becomes progressively one committed to loving others, where "others" ideally is not limited to other human beings but also animals, plants, etc.: indeed, all creation. This might or might not coincide with conversion to a new religion, although frankly given that conversion to love is properly in most cases a life-long journey it will properly be the case that it will not coincide with conversion to a new religion.

Let me suggest that what we get primarily in Paul are glimpses into the mind of a man undergoing such conversion. We know from his own words that Paul was not always a loving man. Then something happened to him. He changed. The Acts presents this change as the result of a vision of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and there is really no reason to think that Paul neither had such a vision nor that it did not have a profound effect upon him. That might very well be the moment that in retrospect he viewed as the beginning of his journey towards becoming what a Being-in-love. As he traveled this journey he inevitably and progressively subjected his earlier commitments to critique and found them lacking. The criterion of the critique was love, against which there is no law.

Now, do not let me be misunderstood: I do not think that Paul thought that the Law was antithetical to love. I think rather that he came to believe that interpretation of the Law must be subordinated to the experience of loving and being loved, and that through this in fact we come to discover the truest meaning of the Law. The Church has continued this Pauline work for two millennia, sometimes better than others. What this means is that new experiences of loving and being loved will continue to determine our readings of Torah, and not just of Torah, but also of the Old Testament, of the New Testament, of the Fathers, the medievals, the Reformers, the moderns, etc. And not just how we read texts but also how we interact with others in general. We will progressively submit more and more of the world to the rule of love, which in Christian theology means submitting more and more of the world to the rule of Christ.

And after two millennia the world has reached the place in its pilgrim journey that it is submitting the matter of same-sex attraction to the rule of love, and the Church is slowly, reluctantly, doing likewise. The experience of Being-in-love has led us to confront our often less-than-loving attitudes towards homosexual persons, and this has brought us to the point that we understand Paul and other passages deemed relevant to the matter somewhat differently. As we become less hostile to homosexual persons we become less confident that the scripture warrants our hostility. Put in Christian terms, God is softening our hearts of stone. We are learning that to think as Paul thought means not simply or even primarily or even at all to affirm the sum total of his propositions but rather more fundamentally to understand the logic by which he came to advance those propositions. And as we do so we begin to suspect that maybe, just maybe, St. Paul might be looking down upon our increasing collective love towards homosexual persons with joy and gladness.


  1. I agree that the NT is not to be reduced to a set of propositions about what is and what is not permissible. Rather, the NT points in the direction of what it means to live as a slave to righteousness and posts warning signs to indicate that one is in danger of once again becoming a slave to sin. What I miss in your argument is how "the rule of love" or the experience of "Being-in-love" necessitates full acceptance of homosexual behaviour in the church. If homosexual behaviour is in fact detrimental to those who practice it and to the local churches that accept and promote it, then full acceptance of homosexual behaviour in the church can hardly be called an act of love. Love entails acting in the best interest of someone else. You might respond that I do not have the right to determine what is in the best interest of someone else. I agree. But your argument also falls short here. I'm not convinced that we can act out of love in a biblical sense without having a way of determining what is in the best interests of others.

    1. Thank you for your response.

      With regard to the sentence: "Rather, the NT points in the direction of what it means to live as a slave to righteousness and posts warning signs to indicate that one is in danger of once again becoming a slave to sin." And there are few sins more egregious in scripture than the failure to concern oneself with the needs of others. Now, if the church's claim to be a necessary part of human existence is to be accepted then homosexual persons have pastoral needs. How can the church meet those needs if it so actively reviles homosexual persons as to keep them away from the church?

      With regard to the following sentence: "What I miss in your argument is how 'the rule of love' or the experience of 'Being-in-love' necessitates full acceptance of homosexual behaviour in the church." The argument is the experience of love itself. The Christian tradition has schematized this as the Spirit speaking in one's heart, modern thought as empathy. Once one has genuinely experienced love for self and others, and moreover in relation to homosexual persons, the question will become not "Can we accept homosexual persons?" but "How can we not?"

      Continuing on. You will no doubt cavil: but I accept homosexual persons, just not their behaviour. That is well and good, if you have reason to revile the latter. So I come to your conditional statement "If homosexual behaviour is in fact detrimental to those who practice it and to the local churches that accept and promote it, then full acceptance of homosexual behaviour in the church can hardly be called an act of love." What I miss in your argument is evidence that this conditional is satisfied. You might respond, "Well, the Bible says that it is detrimental," but exactly in question is whether that is indeed the case. So I ask: how is it detrimental? how are homosexual persons harming themselves by engaging in "homosexual behaviour"? And I'm really not quite sure what "homosexual behaviour" means. Are we talking strictly about sexual relations between two members of the same sex? Or are we talking about their experiences of love for one another, their commitments to each others' well-being? And I cannot help but wondering how such mutual love can be detrimental.

      As for your last statement "I'm not convinced that we can act out of love in a biblical sense without having a way of determining what is in the best interests of others," that is quite irrelevant, as I have not argued that the negative is the case. Indeed, I am quite convinced that we can determine what is in others' best interests. For instance, it is in others' best interest that they have access to water, to food, health care, to security from violence; and thus I oppose the water shut-downs in Detroit, the murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent use of police force to shut down protests in Ferguson, MO, the murder of civilians by the IDF and ISIS. What I dispute is precisely that homosexual behaviour belongs in the same category as these demonstrable ills.

    2. Thanks for responding to me. Please pardon the excessively long reply.

      Here is how I understand your argument (feel free to correct me):

      1. The expression of genuine love, affection, commitment, etc. is an essential aspect of being a Christian [I agree!].
      2. Homosexual persons demonstrate these expressions of love.
      3. Regardless of what the Bible might appear to say about homosexual activity, or how it may have been interpreted historically, (which in either case may not address the nature of modern homosexual relationships), the rule of love must condition our interpretation.
      4. People who engage in homosexual activity (sexual intercourse and other romantic activities with the same sex) ought to be welcomed and encouraged to fully participate in the church.

      Since I agree with point one, I move on to point two. Love can be expressed in different ways. For instance, I express my love for my wife in a different way than I express my love for my mother. Both relationships can (and hopefully do!) involve genuine love, affection, and commitment, but only one ought to be expressed erotically. I do not find it problematic that relationships involving genuine love, affection, etc. occur between people of the same gender. I do find it problematic when (in the context of the church) this love is expressed erotically.

      In your response you challenged me to demonstrate that homosexual activity is detrimental to those who participate in it and to the church. I confess this is not easily done (without resorting to proof-texting). I also agree that in many cases acting in the best interests of others is obvious, as it is in the examples you give. But I submit that acting in the best interests of others is not as clear in matters of sexuality. In 1 Cor 5, Paul does not object to the man sleeping with his father’s wife on the grounds that their relationship is not a genuine expression of love. On the other hand, he does not provide a detailed rationale as to why this relationship is unacceptable. In fact, the sexual ethics found in scripture are not demonstrated through rational argument, but are simply asserted.

      I could argue on the basis of anecdotal evidence that homosexuality is harmful, but I’m sure you could supply counter-examples. I lack the expertise to argue on scientific (biological and sociological) grounds. Even if I did, you could call into question my sources, my interpretation of the data, etc. Whatever evidence I might supply, I am unlikely to prove to your satisfaction that homosexuality is detrimental to those who practice it or to the church outside of scripture. But neither can you prove to me that it is not. It appears we are at an impasse.

      I now take exception to point three; if we allow the rule of love to overrule any interpretation of scripture that conflicts with the sexual preferences of human beings (mutually consenting of course!), than scripture cannot mandate anything with respect to human sexuality. If the rule of love can justify homosexual activity, why not incest, threesomes, serial monogamy, etc.? Can you allow homosexual activity in the church on the basis of the rule of love and not allow loving, committed threesomes without being arbitrary? What constraints (if any) shape a Christian view of sexuality?

    3. First, no, that's not my "argument." My "argument" is grace, and it turns out that grace has nothing to do with the whether or not the other person merits love and acceptance. That's the point. I love and accept homosexual persons because I have experienced grace and thus at my best cannot but help it to show to others. And this isn't grace as some hairy-fairy metaphysics but rather as a very human experience. We all do stupid things, we all have flaws, and yet others go on loving us. That's grace. And if we cannot show it to others then there is a problem with us, not them.

      With regard to 1 Cor. 5 I find it astonishing that you cannot see to what Paul is objecting. It's called "adultery." There is no hint that the father in question has passed away, and in fact Paul's own statements elsewhere would suggest that if that was the case then he would not consider the woman to be bound to her husband. Moreover, given Paul's interest throughout this part of 1 Cor. with the question of unity it strikes me that what he is concerned about here is how such behaviour causes disorder in communities. This isn't just about some guy engaging in naughty behaviour but about the consequences for the community.

      Now, this seems to fit with the basic understanding of sin throughout scripture. To sin is to fail to uphold one's duties in a relationship. It can be via commission or omission. How is the homosexual person failing to uphold her or his duties in a relationship? To whom has she or he a duty not to engage in same-sex relations?

      Already evident within the biblical tradition itself--and operative in subsequent Jewish and Christian patterns of interpretation--has been an understanding that divine revelation is true not because God said it, but rather God said it because it is true. Thus biblical interpretation is read always with one eye to the current state of our knowledge about the universe. There is thus alongside the rule of love the rule of reason. Now, as you note, you have no expertise in the matter of biology or sociology. For the life of me I cannot see how biology is relevant to the question of whether same-sex relations are detrimental to homosexual persons, so we'll exclude that. We can add psychology, because obviously that is relevant. And what is interesting is that there is a consensus among those with the necessary qualifications that there is nothing detrimental in same-sex relations. In fact study after study has shown that what is detrimental to homosexuals is homophobia. We are at an impasse on this matter if and only if you choose to assume that your lack of qualified knowledge trumps the consensus of those with qualified knowledge.

      As for the final paragraph that is just mischief. It's a slippery slope argument and thus has no validity whatsoever. Let us grant that there is a line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour; you would still need to show that homosexual lines on the latter side. But of course there is a line, and on the other side there are sexual acts that fail to fulfill one's duties in relationship, i.e. are sinful. Rape is a failure to fulfill my duty to respect another person's bodily integrity; incest is a failure to fulfill my duty to respect my consanguineal kin precisely as consanguineal kin; etc. This, again, is to submit interpretation to the rule of reason.

      Now, of course, one can object "Faith trumps reason," but if we take that approach (one remarkably inconsistent with the broad sweep of the Christian tradition) then I must ask how one can reasonably know that the content of one's faith is well and good. At that point one can make no reasonable argument for one's position. Then one's opposition to same-sex relationships would become quite precisely unreasonable. Reason is inescapable, and given everything that we now know about the human person, about human community, how can one continue to reasonably oppose same-sex relationships?

  2. My mischievous paragraph does not make a slipper slope argument: I am not saying that accepting homosexual behaviour within the church necessitates accepting other sexual behaviours that are currently deemed deviant. What I am saying is that the criteria that you use to justify homosexual behaviour within the church can also be satisfied by other sexual relationships such as threesomes. Threesomes are also in need of grace. If they are loving, committed, fulfil duties to each person involved, do not disrupt the community etc., then they are hardly distinguishable analogically from a monogamous homosexual relationship. Furthermore, your argument against incest (that fails to fulfil the duty of kinship), rests on foundational presuppositions that themselves do not have a further justification. If I say that homosexuality fails to fulfil the duty of friendship between same-sex persons, how is my argument any different from yours structurally?

    I agree that reason is a necessary aspect of interpreting scripture, but I must also insist that human reason is far from being infallible. If we assume that a certain position is correct because it rests on recent research we risk falling into "chronological snobbery." I do not doubt that many experts in the fields of psychology and sociology make convincing cases for the benefits of homosexuality. I also do not doubt that these conclusions are influenced by external factors; these areas of study are necessarily more subjective than others (ex. chemistry, physics, etc.). I don't think our debate can move forward on the basis of appeals to authority in this area.

    1. Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that you are not advancing a slippery slope argument. It is really no matter, for you are still caught in a morass of logical and empirical difficulties.

      Regarding your last question in that initial sentence: "If I say that homosexuality fails to fulfil the duty of friendship between same-sex persons, how is my argument any different from yours structurally?" The question of analogous structure establishes nothing with regard to the truth of a proposition. Two propositions can have identical structure yet one can be entirely false whilst the other is entirely true. This is because propositions have empirical content as well as logical structure. So we can quite happily dispense with that argument.

      Now, regarding incest, I'm not sure that you are going to find yourself on particularly firm ground here. There are consanguineal marriages in Genesis that would be banned under Levitical law. Most notable is that of Abraham and Sarah. They are half-siblings. Yet not only is God okay with that but in fact he prefers that relationship over Abraham's dalliance with Hagar, with whom there is no issue of incest. Spoiler alert: I can with little effort press into the service of my argument any account that you can give to account for why it can be both the case that Abraham was not committing incest and yet the Levitical incest laws should be normative. It would, incidentally, be the same with "threesomes," which as you describe here sound basically like polygamy--something towards which Genesis and even later parts of the Tanakh is notably sanguine.

      Of course reason is fallible; that goes without saying. But that cuts both ways equally. If it is possible that current research on homosexuality might be false then it is also possible that longstanding sexual ethics might also be false. Or are reactionaries' judgments on such matters exempt from fallibility?

      With regard to appeals to authority: you again tread on thin ice here. Your entire argument is predicated upon an appeal to authority, namely an appeal to (a particular and contestable understanding of) scriptural authority. If we dispense with appeals to authority in principle then your argument goes with it. Note also that there is a difference between appealing to authority and building upon the work of others. The former is fallacious, the latter is necessary. If I never did the latter did I would have to commence everything at the very basics. There in fact could no progress of knowledge. Yet there is progress of knowledge, therefore we do build upon the work of others, and it works--not perfectly, but it does.

      "Being biblical" consists not in trying to freeze history at the time of Paul but rather of understanding how God is moving history forward towards his ends and being willing to participate in that process. It is accepting the very biblical idea that God tends to surprise his people by doing new things, things that they never expected. I would suggest that the God of the reactionaries--that is, the God from whom we cannot expect new and surprising thing--is a God who is neither living nor free, and thus not the God of scripture, and indeed not God at all.

  3. My aim in my mischievous paragraph was to demonstrate that drawing any sort of line with respect to sexual behaviour that goes beyond what hurts the community (which is rather subjective) requires an appeal to authority. My appeal to analogy was to show that your assertion that "incest is a failure to fulfill my duty to respect my consanguineal kin precisely as consanguineal kin" is essentially a tautology. But, if I understand you correctly (and I have failed to do that above on a few things), you wouldn't draw a line (aside from rape or causing harm to the community [again, how do we determine what is harmful?]), so there is no point in continuing this part of our debate.

    With respect to appealing to authority, as I have already said, I lack the expertise in the necessary areas to debate with you on those grounds. Unless you have the required expertise, continuing the debate in this area would necessitate appealing to authority for both of us (who can produce the greatest number of studies and which studies are reputable?). As far as scripture is concerned, like Jesus, I do appeal to its authority. If scripture is not inspired by God, then it becomes merely one interesting text among many. At that point, why call yourself a Christian? Debating on how to appeal to the authority of scripture may be a more productive way of moving forward, especially if you are interested in persuading Evangelicals to adopt your position.

    Finally, biblical interpretation and theology have a long history of building upon the work of others. And the vast majority of Christian writers in the history of biblical interpretation and theology is on my side with respect to homosexuality, if you agree at all with Chesterton's notion of the democracy of the dead. You can contend that they are mistaken, but the onus is on you to show why.

    After this, the last word is yours; this has proven to be too distracting and I need to get back to other work. Thank you for taking the time to thoughtfully respond to my comments.