Inquiring minds want to know

Various correspondents have proposed or at least asked about Christian justifications for homosexuality. Here’s a sort of canned response that seems to address most concerns:

I don’t view the issue as basically a question of authority. We need a definite way of life, and that requires authority, but legitimate authority is normally rational. It asks for what is best and promotes what is best, and those things can be discussed. For me, at bottom, it’s not even a specifically religious issue. It’s more a matter of natural law.*

The basic issue is what’s good and bad in sex. It may be true that some people are made differently. People have all sorts of impulses and abilities and those form all sorts of different patterns. Sometimes that means they should go their own way and sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on whether it’s a good idea to go that way. In this case the question is what makes sexual activity part of a good way of life and the extent to which people are made differently in a way that changes that.

Sex is a strong impulse and it goes off in all sorts of destructive directions. On the other hand it also has constructive aspects. It produces new life and joins lives and generations so it is basic to human life and society. It has a variety of aspects: physical, personal, family, social, spiritual. To my mind the basic issue is how much those aspects can be separated and made optional without breaking the connection between sex and the whole range of human concerns and turning it into something self-defining, self-seeking, and ultimately destructive.

It seems to me that to be relied on to connect us to other people and the world sex has to involve something more than the intentions and experiences of the participants. If it’s just intentions and experiences then it’s hard to know what to make of it. There’s no external check and the relationship can go anywhere. I don’t think that can be controlled just by deciding to control it. Sex is too basic to human life and involves impulses that are too strong.

It’s obvious that sex is not just the intentions and experiences of the parties in the case of a man and woman of a suitable age and condition of health engaging in sexual intercourse with no contraception and no contemplation of abortion. In doing what they’re doing they’re pledging themselves in an open-ended way to each other, their possible descendants, their ancestors, and the world at large. So in that clearly OK case sex can evidently mean objectively what the experience seems to express, and it can work as a component of a good life.

But how far can that situation be extended? Suppose it’s an infertile period? One of them happens to be sterile? They use contraception sometimes? They’re long in the tooth and conception is not a practical possibility?

It’s not immediately obvious where to draw the line. It seems clear that the obviously OK situation has to be extended somewhat, since otherwise sex would be a technique for making babies rather than something that constitutes a relationship that gains weight and definition from its connection to making babies (and thereby, among other things, gives babies a place to live).

The no-homosexuality view is that as a minimum the relationship overall, in its physical aspects, has to be oriented toward acts that by nature and natural function produce babies. If you don’t have at least that then things are too amorphous to have an objective natural meaning and they can wander off in any direction at all.

That standard doesn’t seem arbitrary to me. People normally think about themselves and their acts in terms of what they are—their identity—rather than parsing the likelihood of this and that consequence. So it doesn’t seem crazy to say that the identity of the people and acts that constitute the relationship has more effect than its actual consequences on what we make of the relationship.

Many people of course say that minimum is not enough. The Catholic Church, like all Christian denominations before 1930, would say that any intentional direct interference with the fertility of the relationship breaks the tie too much. Post-60s developments suggest that view might be correct, but even if it’s highly questionable the basic point remains that there has to be at least some minimal connection. In the case of homosexual relationships that’s simply not there.

All this is very abstract and theoretical and unpersuasive for most people. Maybe a way to make it slightly more concrete is to ask how things are likely to work out. Marriage provides a way to give sex a dignified place because—at a minimum—the identity of the parties as male and female means it has a natural function, since male bodies, female bodies, and sexual intercourse have a natural function. That situation enables us to see the relation as intrinsically social and carrying definite objective obligations simply because of what it is. I don’t see anything similar in homosexual relationships. Any weighty significance would be a bootstrap operation carried out by the individuals involved.

Another angle is that we’re social beings, and should be loyal to arrangements that support a tolerable functional overall way of life. We understand ourselves and our acts and what they are by reference to how they work as part of a larger scheme. What would that scheme be if homosexual relationships were put in the same class (the “OK sex” class) as marriage?

In particular, why wouldn’t putting them in the same class affect relations between men and women? Those relations depend on ideas about what a man is, what a woman is, what special obligations they have to each other as men and women, whether marriage has some special substantive content other people can recognize and the parties can appeal to in opposition to what one of them feels like doing. If there aren’t any settled ideas on such points—and there can’t be if sexual relations between two men are considered the same sort of thing as sexual relations between a man and woman—everything becomes self-defined: people are made differently and it’s oppressive to force other people’s definitions on the unique and changing relations of specific people.

On such a view, sex doesn’t have any preordained connection to any special function or relationship. Nor can there be standards based on its special qualities, since those qualities are different for different people. There are just the general standards that apply to all human connections: you shouldn’t deceive people, you should be kind, and you should be prudent, so you don’t have unwanted diseases or pregnancies, but otherwise you make of sex what you can. Whatever you do that seems to you to make sense by reference to your special situation, goals, characteristics, and so on, as long as you’re open about it and not deceptive, is your right and should be respected.

How can that consequence be avoided by someone who accepts—for example—gay marriage? If you reject the consequence wouldn’t you be judging people who find that their orientation is different from yours? But then marriage as something established and specific really does go away. That seems like a bad thing. In fact, it seems like catastrophe.

The basic thought behind doing away with traditional limitations seems to be that at least for some people the order of their lives is something they should work out themselves based on their own special characteristics independently of other people’s rules. They are what they are, and they should arrange their lives in the best and most thoughtful patterns they can, and we should respect and praise them for their attempts to do so. But if that applies to some people, why wouldn’t it apply to others? Who are we to judge someone because he doesn’t find our patterns fitting? Aren’t we all made differently, not just homosexuals? But where does that view take us?

Many people point out that some homosexual partnerships that include sex seem to work well for those involved, and anyway the people involved are good people in many ways and could do worse, so why not say the sex is OK and even a good thing because it supports and expresses the connection.

The relation might be good as a loyal friendship, but its sexual aspect doesn’t look like a plus because it can’t objectively point outside itself—it’s just the feelings, intentions, and experiences of the parties. But if it does not have something in it that by its nature points outside itself then it’s a bad foundation for a relationship intended to be durable and should be avoided. It’s an attempt to build something important on sand. To speak of “the sexual expression of love” in such a case strikes me as misleading. It makes it sound like sex is like a big hug, something subsidiary that makes a relation more concrete and complete but doesn’t determine its nature in a special way. That seems unrealistic. Sex is nontrivial, it’s structural to our lives, and it has implications that we can’t make other than they are.

On other issues people raise:

  • The Gospel should certainly be available to all. That means it should be available to drunks, prostitutes, corrupt officials, Roman oppressors, crucified robbers, and Jeffrey Dahmer as well as to Mother Theresa and to people who seem like nice guys. The question of course is what it asks of us once it’s available.
  • It’s true that people are often censorious, and that’s something to avoid as a trait of character. But sex is basic and structural, so people have very strong feelings about it. So the idea that it’s a vice to find fault with people has no bearing on what substantive view you should take—e.g., whether it’s homosexuality or homophobia that you should see as the thing to avoid. Whichever side you take people are going to reject you.
  • I’d add that there are other ways than censoriousness to go wrong. It’s common to strike a sort of implicit deal—I won’t criticize you for doing what you do if you don’t criticize me for doing what I do. That’s not good either.

[* In another sense of course it’s a question of authority, since if you accept authority as legitimate you’ll normally go along with what it asks even if you don’t see the point. There are people who don’t know, can’t understand, or don’t see why they should spend time learning the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem who go along with what authority tells them on the point. That doesn’t make them irrational or Fermat’s Last Theorem basically a question of authority. We are all in the position of those people on many issues.]

9 thoughts on “Inquiring minds want to know”

  1. Homosexuality – a couple of further considerations:
    Your commentary on homosexuality is, as you admit, highly abstract. People who aren’t persuaded by your erudite considerations may have an aesthetic particular to think about which, in my view, puts homosexual intercourse in a most disgusting light. There’s also the physical risk to consider – namely the highly probable association between homosexual activity and AIDS etc.

    Even the mere materialist could (or perhaps ought to) have these concerns in mind when forming an opinion about homosexual conduct.

    • All considerations matter
      In this case though I think the most important thing is to satisfy yourself what the right answer is and why it’s right. The “culture wars” etc. have to do with very basic disputes, and very basic disputes usually turn on very abstract points. Physical risks are real but people are convinced they can be managed. And aesthetic considerations carry weight, but you need more in an intellectual environment in which everyone says they’re irrational and bigoted and purely subjective.

      I suppose a point to bear in mind is that once you have the basic argument right it’s usually possible to boil it down and present it in a snappier more popular form.

      • Inquiring Minds
        Yes, snappiness comes with knowledge, as is gained from this site.

        “The basic thought behind doing away with traditional limitations seems to be that at least for some people the order of their lives is something they should work out themselves based on their own special characteristics independently of other people’s rules.” In summary, it means we are who we will ourselves to be. This is a fundamental law of liberalism. But we are not who we will ourselves to be no matter how many sneaker commercials claim it is so.


        • Natural reason is enough in this case
          I agree the basic issue is whether there’s something wrong with homosexuality as such. It seems to me though that we can see there’s a problem with it by considering its specific qualities as an experience and natural event and how those relate to how human life works as an overall system. It’s not as if only people who have the 10 Commandments have an issue with it.

          • Natural Reason
            I apologize to all for my boorish post that I just noticed was capable of editing; so I deleted the silly parts. I did not realize that Mr. Kalb was the commentator (more precisely, the reporter), and I only made a cursory scan of a few paragraphs before seizing on one. I could attempt more excuses, but they still would not amount to excuses. (Great new feature Mr. Kalb.)

  2. Fascism versus moral inversion
    I get a sense, here, of stripping sex down to a narrowly biological definition; then trying to build it back up by adding other pieces of evidence. I don’t think it is the right approach to the question – it seems arbitrary and unconvincing.

    I’m not saying I can offer anything better! – but I don’t think this strategy is likely to be compelling.

    My main approach to such matters at present is to accept that 1. human evaluation is dichotomous and 2. dichotomous thinkg is always evaluative. So neutrality is impossible – except about matters we regard as trivial.

    We have two possibilities therefore: either to regard sex as trivial, or to evaluate either het or homo more highly than the other.

    The 1960s tried to suggest that sex was trivial (merely fun exercise), but this proved impossible; so in order to enable homosex (first to make it acceptable, then respectworthy) it evaluated homosex more highly than heterosex: the current situation.

    This is insane, as everyone knows; but among the intellectual elite moral inversion is now a sign of status and commonsense arguments are seen by mainstream secular discourse as ‘fascist’ – as indeed they are.

    SO that is the entire range of choice offered by mainstream secular discourse: the insanity of moral inversion, or commonsense fascism. The elite choose moral inversion; the mass would, if given the opportunity, choose fascism as preferable.

    The only way-out from the impasse of either PC/or fascism is religious – the only religious choices in the Western world are Christianity and Islam. The intellectual elite have implicitly (and increasingly explicitly) chosen Islam, which choice flows from their system of moral inversions.

    To commonsense, this outcome is clearly insane; but commonsense is fascist, so *must* be ignored, suppressed, and actively prosecuted.


    (P.S. – maybe it is time to be clearer and more explicit that the commonsense secular right is indeed fascist, just as the left always says it is.

    SO the secular right *is* fascist; but is not necessarily nor usually Nazi.

    That is a step towards differentiating the Christian religious right as being commonsense (i.e. commonsense-plus), but not fascist.)

    • I don’t see the objection
      The point is not to strip sex down but to point out that its physical aspects are essential to understanding what it is. Is that so arbitrary?

      Your use of the word “biological” may indicate the problem. The word suggests modern natural science, which would like very much to reject essences and indeed everything that can’t be observed and measured by neutral third parties. I agree that not much can be done with the biological side of sex from that point of view.

      On the other hand, it does matter a great deal that we have bodies and that many (most? all?) of our experiences are conditioned by corporeality. If someone goes on and on about how mortality conditions the whole of human life he might be right or wrong but it would seem odd to criticize his view as narrow biologism even though death is a biological phenomenon and when viewed as such is quite crude and lacking in spiritual and moral content. Ditto for someone who insists that it’s important that sex makes babies and forms unions that give babies a place to live and learn how to be human.

      Your reference to fascism is interesting in that regard. Maybe part of the basis of fascism is that people know on some level that the particular (which includes the physical) matters. Modern thought deprives particulars of significance because it eliminates participation in universal schemes and essences as part of what they are. They’re simply neutral resources, with no intrinsic meaning, to be used for whatever purposes we have in mind. Hence the contemporary attitude toward sex.

      The result though is that people try to maintain their significance by mere assertion backed by physical force. Their betters tell them that the physical is merely the physical, and they lack the intellectual resources to dispute the point, so if they think particulars matter and you say they don’t they’ll keep the discussion on a purely physical level and carry it forward by beating you up.

  3. Means to an end
    As crass and boring as it sounds, to my mind sex is a means to an end. Nothing is so pleasurable that it is an end in itself, at least if one is thinking critically about it.

    In that mindset, homosexuality like perversion, promiscuity and excess seems to be broken: it’s an end in itself.

    The best policy seems to me to be Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). This way, homosexuals can quietly be bachelors and we don’t have to hear about it; they are not shamed into pretending to be heteros and passing on their genes.

    I say this because I’ve known a number of people who I think are biologically homosexual, and almost all of them have had congenital health problems that took them from us early.

    I suppose when I see some gay guy in his 50s with his long-term partner, I can set aside disgust for a moment and wish them well. I like this outcome better than politicized gays, or gays adopting children. Statistically, that will end badly.

  4. Excellent arguments
    Hi. I stumbled upon your post and just wanted to thank you very much for the very well presented investigations and considerations. I think you did particularly well in locating the nexus point of the person and their identity which I undestand to be the intantiation of nature or natural law. Your points are persuasive and in experience as lived, obvious and natural. So thanks for the excellent summary. A last point is that the piece underscores the necessity of their being an actual living and accessible authority which a God who is wisdom must provide.


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