Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Homosexuality

Previously, I mentioned that I had a rant reserved for people who think that the Bible expresses any views about homosexuality, or homosexuals, or "being" homosexual, but that I would skip over that part. Recently, somebody asked if I would elaborate.

I wish that this wasn't a sensitive topic, but I've found that people have an unfortunate inability to discuss theology academically. So if this is a sensitive topic for you, I suggest you just stop reading now. Alternatively, if academic discussions of theology are boring or offensive to you, I likewise suggest that you just stop reading now.

The commenter I refer to asked a couple of questions, which I would group as follows:

1. What is my aforementioned rant?
2. What combination of genetic and environmental factors do I think shapes sexual orientation?
3. Do I agree with research showing that orientation can be changed?
4. Do I think the above has any bearing on a theological understanding of homosexuality?

Most of these questions I am not going to address here in any detail. To briefly dispose of those:

2. I am not a biologist, let alone a biologist with a specialization that bears on the development of sexual orientation. I do know that Robert Sapolsky, who meets at least some of those requirements, took only one class to convince me that "genetic vs. environmental" is not a useful opposition. I consider it common sense that sexual orientation is shaped by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, and I consider myself spectacularly unqualified to hold an opinion beyond that.

3. I don't agree with that research for the two simple reasons that a) I have not seen any, and b) I do not have the intellectual equipment to evaluate it critically even if somebody did show it to me. To give an example I'm somewhat more qualified to discuss, if I showed somebody the work of William Tarn on Alexander the Great, and told them (truthfully) that Tarn was one of the great classicists of the 20th century, they might come to the conclusion that Alexander the Great was one of humanity's great heroes. They would probably have little to no knowledge of subsequent work on Alexander that has severely criticized Tarn's vision as idealistic and even naive. In a similar way, showing me research concluding that orientation can be changed, even if done in a reputable way by a reputable research team, would be insufficient. I do not begin to have either the breadth or depth of education to critically evaluate conversion therapy research, and therefore I decline to have an opinion about it.

4. I think that knowledge about the world "bears on" the theological understanding of anything, so yes. But I don't really think there is much of a theological understanding of homosexuality, specifically.

Which brings me to 1: what is my rant?

EDIT: Thayet points out that I never actually summarize my conclusions, which makes this post a pain to read. So here's the summary:

I don't think the Bible says anything about homosexuality or homosexual orientation. This is no surprise; the concept of homosexuality as a fact of a person's identity was simply not an ancient concept, so we should not expect to find anything about it in ancient works. About half of the texts historically used to support a supposed Biblical ban on homosexuality do not even apply to Christian morality. The most I think you can get from the passages that do apply to Christian morality is a disapproval of homosexual sex. This is how I read those passages, but I recognize that that isn't the only plausible way to read them.

So, there's the summary. Here's what underlies it:

Any time a person says that "the Bible says" something, it's important to look at the actual text. In the case of the Bible's statements on homosexuality, we might identify the following passages:

Genesis 19
Leviticus 18:22
Leviticus 20:13
Judges 19

Romans 1:26-27
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
1 Timothy 1:8-11

I'm not going to bother quoting the passages; you can look them up yourself easily enough, and if for some reason you don't have a Bible handy you can still look them up. But I do encourage you to keep the text on hand in the discussion that follows. I hope it goes without saying, but although I am sometimes citing particular verses, I intend them to be read in their larger context.

The first and most obvious thing to notice about the list above is that the first three references are found in the Torah. This should immediately (but alas, seldom does) raise a red flag in the mind of anybody reading those passages for their application to Christian morality (which is roughly what "the Bible says" really means). Anything found in the Law should immediately bring to mind passages such as:

Acts 13:38-39
Acts 15 (particularly vv. 23-29)
Romans 2-8:11 (particularly 6:14)
Galatians 2:15-16
Ephesians 2:14-16

Those passages, and others like them, are the textual foundation for the well-settled but often-ignored Christian principle that Christians, qua Christians, are not subject to the Mosaic Law. Ordinarily this would be a commonsense principle - nobody expects Hindus to imagine themselves bound by the teachings of Islam, for instance - but because of Christianity's peculiar relationship with Judaism people sometimes forget that Christians do not imagine themselves bound by the strictures of Judaism (this misunderstanding lies at the root of the lamentably common "shellfish argument," I shouldn't wonder).

We need to take a digression at this point to discuss why, if the principle that Christians are not under the Law is so well-settled, Christians are so curiously concerned with the Old Testament in general, and the Torah in particular. A simple answer would be to refer to 1 Corinthians 10:11, but let me try to elaborate on one particular aspect. We care, I venture to say, because plainly enough God cared too, at one time, for one people - and we are interested in what God cares about. This is often phrased in Christianese as looking for the "spiritual principle" behind the text. This is commonsensical enough when applied to books like Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, which are in the form of history - even so-called "liberal" scholars of the Bible would agree that the authors of those books wrote them down to illustrate particular principles they considered important. When one conceives of God as having person-like qualities, though ("personal" in Christianese), it makes sense to apply the same type of analysis to other types of books as well. If you want to know what sort of man was Robert E. Lee, reading everything he wrote is a good place to start, even if the letters and orders weren't addressed to you. If you want to know what sort of god is ours, we argue, reading everything he wrote is likewise a good place to start, even if the Law you're reading doesn't apply to you.

But it is of course only a good place to start, and introduces a dangerous amount of reader judgment into the picture. What do you conclude from Lee's writings? Reasonable people could conclude different things. What spiritual principle is behind the Levitical Code? Reasonable people could conclude different things. The text still matters, of course - reasonable people cannot, for instance, conclude from Lee's writings that he considered loyalty to one's home state of no account. But the result is still highly sensitive to the individual reader's personal proclivities and outside influences.

That isn't to say that this sort of analysis should never be engaged in, but it is to say that it calls for a great deal of humility. This is particularly true when discussing the conclusions from such analysis with other people.

With these thoughts in mind, let us return to the text.

Each of the Old Testament passages in question relates to homosexual activity. The reference is always to action, and particularly to sexual intercourse. For instance, Leviticus 18:22 by its terms relates to sex "with a male as with a woman." The most obvious literal meaning of "as with a woman," vaginal intercourse, is impossible, but it seems to me that the text is pretty clearly talking about sex of some sort - perhaps as specific as anal intercourse, perhaps as broad as any sort of ejaculatory activity. The reference is specifically to sex, though. Our definition of "lie with" would need to be very broad indeed to bring, say, homosexual kissing within the purview of this passage (and any sort of ban on males kissing males seems unlikely given the cultural context of Leviticus, in any case).

I want to emphasize, for this is a theme to which I shall return, that the Old Testament passages refer to homosexual activity, rather than to homosexual states of being. Leviticus does not say, "Thou shalt not be gay." It seems to say something along the lines of "Don't insert your penis into the bodily cavities of a man." (EDIT: Alanna tells me that there isn't even a word for "homosexual" in ancient Hebrew, and points me to this helpful discussion of what precisely Leviticus might be saying and why.) In two cases - the rapes recounted in Genesis 19 and Judges 19 - the homosexual acts were demanded by mobs that were apparently just as happy to rape women as men, which certainly casts doubt on any attempt to label the activity in those stories as homosexual. Indeed, the emphasis in the rape stories seems to me to be on the perfectly obvious horror of rowdy mobs demanding rape victims, rather than on the gender of the victims or the sexual orientation of their attackers. There's also probably an emphasis in the author's mind on the horror of attacking strangers who are under the hospitality of a local - but I don't think there's anything here talking about homosexual sex, let alone homosexuality.

Setting these observations aside for a moment, let us turn to the New Testament passages.

The New Testament passages are of a different character than the Old Testament ones. They aren't stories, as in Genesis and Judges; neither are they in the form of statutes, as in Leviticus. Instead they are almost asides. Romans 1:26-27 uses homosexual activity as an example of a society gone wrong; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 assumes that the reader knows or ought to know that those who engage in homosexual activity are unrighteous persons who will not inherit the kingdom of God, and 1 Timothy 1:8-11 likewise lists those who engage in homosexual activity are not righteous persons.

Let me stop here and acknowledge that these are troubling passages. My commitment to them as the Word of God doesn't make me blind to that fact. I decline to say "troubling passages to modern eyes" because I don't think they are any more troubling to modern eyes than they would have been to ancient ones. Again, if this is upsetting to you, I suggest you either stop reading entirely or at least take a break and come back to this post another time.

The Old Testament passages are, in my opinion, fairly easily dismissed. Two of them have only the most tenuous connection to homosexual sex, and the other two are part of a body of law the New Testament specifically states Christians are not bound by. These dodges are not available for the New Testament passages, though. So what do these passages actually say?

The chief observation I would make about them is that they are, again, about homosexual activity. I have heard it argued that the phrase "burned in their lust for one another" in Romans 1:27 suggests that homosexual desire is also seen as sinful by God. I disagree. That argument seems to me to conflate desire with lust. It is neither surprising not controversial to find Scripture stating that God finds lust to be sinful. The word usually translated "lust" here is orexis, which does simply mean "yearning" rather than "lust" specifically (in fact I don't know of any really good Greek equivalent to the English "lust" in its modern vernacular sense; that meaning usually has to be selected by context). But other words in the passage, particularly "burned," make me fairly certain that Paul meant orexis in the sense of "lust" rather than in its tamer sense of "strongly desired." So the Romans passage appears to use women having sex with women, men having sex with men, and both lusting after the aforesaid, as evidence of a degenerate society.

The 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy passages use a curious word, arsenokoitês, and much ink has been spilled about its meaning. Arsenokoitês is a noun, and it is usually translated something like "sodomites" or "homosexual offenders" in English. Translating it is somewhat difficult because it is not a common word, and ancient Greek is a dead language. The two halves of the word mean "male" and "sleeps with," and it bears a striking structural similarity to mêtêrkoitês, "mother-fucker" (with roughly equivalent profane connotations in both Greek and English). A literal translation of arsenokoitês would therefore be something along the lines of "men who sleep with men." I don't think there's enough context to say for sure whether Paul meant the term as a profanity (something like "men-fuckers") or not.

Religioustolerance.org has a more or less useful discourse on possible meanings of arsenokoitês which probably deserves to be mentioned here, since it's the first hit on a Google search for "Bible homosexuality." I disagree with that article in places - chiefly, I think that arsenokoitês may well have been used in place of a paederasty-related word precisely because the author wanted to get at the homosexual sex act itself, rather than limiting his scope to paederasty or expanding it to include the relational aspects of paederasty, and I don't know how you get "masturbators" out of arsenokoitês - but if you're curious, you can take a look.

It is precisely because arsenokoitês is a difficult word to translate that I prefer to default to the literal definition of men who sleep with men, and indeed that is the definition settled upon by the leading academic Greek lexicon. Religioustolerance.org and I agree on at least one point, though, which is that the word's emphasis is on the sex act.

Which brings us to my main point.

Modern discourse about homosexuality assumes that homosexuality is a status. A person's sexual orientation is a part of their identity. A person "is" homosexual or heterosexual. As near as I have been able to determine, the very concept of homosexuality, or homosexuals, is essentially a 19th-century concept. I am quite certain, from my classics education, that the ancients did not think of things in that way. I have no doubt they would recognize that certain people had sex with men more than with women, or vice versa, but that's just it - the focus would have been on the sex act itself and the gender of the sex actees, not on the sex actor. As my professors at Stanford pointed out, gender itself in the ancient Greek conception wasn't really a binary (or even trinary) concept. It was a continuum. We can see this reflected in ancient Greek sexual practice, where it would not be at all uncommon for individuals we would think of as "heterosexual" having "homosexual" sex, and vice versa. You could phrase it as everybody in ancient Greece being bisexual, but even that is missing the point. There simply was no ancient concept equivalent to the modern one of sexual orientation.

When we keep this in mind, it's no surprise to find our New Testament passages talking about specific types of sex acts rather than about sexual orientation. How is Paul supposed to write about something for which he has no concept, let alone a word? Even if he could, why would he, if his readers had no concept of sexual orientation either? For this reason, I think it's very dangerous to assume that when Paul writes about homosexual activity, he is also by implication writing about sexual orientation.

My personal conviction is that everybody who looks for what "the Bible says" about homosexuality using the modern status-based conception is on a fool's errand, for two reasons. The first is that the status-based conception is simply not an ancient one, which I think is seen plainly enough by the fact that Scripture consistently appears to be discussing sex acts rather than types of people. The orientation discussion simply isn't there. The second is that I'm not at all sure that the status-based conception of sexual orientation is even a good way to think about these issues. Personally I am inclined to take a page from the ancients and think of sexual orientation as a continuum, and I'm also strongly tempted to take another page from them and not think that sexual orientation is one of a person's defining characteristics, period.

If I've convinced you thus far, we've arrived at a point where we see no Scriptural passages discussing homosexuality - in short, we've concluded that "the Bible says" nothing on the subject of sexual orientation one way or another. But what about homosexual sex?

I think you'll agree with me by now that there is some room for doubt when it comes to what I think of as the three main Biblical passages on this issue - the Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy passages we've been discussing. Personally, I think the best reading of those passages is to conclude that God doesn't like homosexual sex. There are all sorts of issues one can raise about that reading (e.g., are we to believe that God is okay with people wanting to have sex but not okay with them having it?), but on the whole I think it's more true to the text than any other. I can certainly see how other people can (and have) reached different conclusions, and to the extent that those different conclusions are the honest results of a good faith effort to read the text for what it actually says, I have no problem with them. As for different conclusions that are otherwise held, well, I have a problem with all opinions held as a result of intellectual dishonesty, and I think most people are with me on that one.

It's worth pointing out at the end of this post that the most overwhelming response I have when I search Scripture on this topic is a powerful, humbling response of I don't know. I think we are called to interpret Scripture as best we can, and my best efforts lead me to the conclusion that God has some sort of problem with homosexual sex. Thankfully, not many people crave my approval of their homosexual sex acts (and why should they?), so the issue doesn't come up very often. To the extent that it does, my best answer is this: get to know Jesus, read the Bible, and tell me what you think.

As for the other issues that are current today - such as whether or not it's okay to "be" homosexual, or whether homosexuals can marry - I don't think the Bible says anything specific at all. I can only conclude that either I'm being exceptionally dense in my reading of Scripture, or else God didn't consider those issues noteworthy enough to address in Scripture. I suspect it's the latter, which means I think it would be dangerous for me to make them too big a deal. That leaves me to remember humbly that a) God knows more than I do, and b) God loves "homosexuals" as much as he loves me, and I know from experience that he loves me a great deal indeed. That is enough for me.