In America’s capital, gay marriage is now legal, highlighting the role of religion in the struggle for homosexual rights.
AUR’s official stance is that the push for gay marriage is well-intentioned but misguided: although we do believe in equal rights and dignity for gays and straights before the law, we also believe that the government should not discriminate based on relationship status and should not be involved in anything that is — in the overwhelming majority of cases — a religious institution.
The truly progressive position is that the institution of marriage belongs to churches and cultural organizations, and therefore has no place in legislatures and courtrooms. Still, the legalization of gay marriage reaches toward social justice, even if it falls short of achieving it.
The larger issue of homosexuality in society remains in play, and forces opposed to gay rights will certainly fight to have gay marriage in DC (and elsewhere) repealed, renamed, or outright banned. The governor of Virginia has recently declared anti-gay discrimination in state government acceptable, and the ability of homosexuals to serve openly in the American military continues to be obstructed by the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Although there are many arguments against homosexuality, the anti-gay movement draws key inspiration from religion, specifically Christian scripture. It is this inspiration that is the subject of this Thursday’s homily.
The More Things Change…
The American Unitarian church began during a struggle against tyranny of another kind, not merely the oligarchy of anti-gay conservatism but the monarchy of anti-democracy conservatism: the Divine Right of Kings.
However, the primary justification was the same then as it is now: a simplistic reading of Paul’s Letter to the Romans propped up by a primitivist belief that society can never morally evolve toward the grace of God.
The primitivism is undone by simply citing the social evolution preached by Jesus Christ; after all, the meek did not inherit the earth while He walked on it. He taught explicitly that society’s structure and morals change over time. Denial of this is against the Gospel, and anti-Christ.
But, the deeper exegetical arguments take a bit more work, and it is work that progressive churches fail to do, shying away from scripture and relying more on philosophical and political arguments against homophobia.
Jonathan Mayhew, the father of American Unitarianism, understood that philosophical and political weapons cannot lay siege to a fortress of exegesis. A Boston Congregationalist minister in the mid-1700s, Mayhew was certainly familiar with the political and philosophical arguments against monarchist oppression that were already current in his day.
Yet, still faced with unbesieged scriptural arguments for tyranny, he laid siege to them on scriptural grounds.
On the anniversary of the execution of Charles I — which inspired a deluge of monarchist revisionism attempting to recast Charles as a saint rather than a tyrant — Mayhew delivered a sermon to unravel the scriptural basis of the Divine Right of Kings once and for all. Published, it became a runaway best-seller in the colonies and in Britain.
In today’s philosophical and political academic environment, we hear a lot about John Locke’s role in overturning monarchist political theory, but it was Mayhew’s Discourse on Unlimited Submission that was cited (by John Adams, the architect of American independence) as the “spark” that ignited revolution against monarchist tyranny.
Mayhew struck at monarchism where it thrived, rather than where it didn’t. Those who wish to fight tyrannous exaptations of religion today should follow Mayhew’s lead into Paul’s Letter.
The Word of Paul
There are numerous scriptural arguments against homosexuality, but none as commonly used as in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which describes the apostle’s vision of the Gospel for the mixed Jew/Gentile church in Rome. Paul wrote it in the 1st Century, long before the idea of “sexuality,” when people spoke merely of various sexual acts. Even so, we’ll take a look at this proof text to see what it says about God’s attitude toward what we call homosexuality today.
Of course, because we worship the Creator rather than any created thing, AUR understands that denying the possibility of human error in the process of transcribing, compiling, and transmitting scripture is irrational at best, idolatrous at worst.
Scripture and its human stewards are mere creatures; for the true believer God alone is perfect.
Therefore, we have to look for God’s wisdom through God’s messengers and messages, not always in them. Even assuming a certain work is “God-breathed,” it has to be read with consideration given to the limited understanding of those inspired by God to write.
A 1st Century mind cannot speak truth with a 21st century understanding of sociology, biology, and psychology. But, that doesn’t mean they aren’t speaking truth.
Reform Unitarianism believes Paul was speaking truth, and too many 21st century Christians are not hearing it.
Spiritual and Moral Truth
So, let us read what the proof text states with a serious eye to the God-breathed spiritual and moral truth therein. The proof text most often cited from the Letter to the Romans begins:
1:21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
The list of idolatrous imagery here demonstrates the point from above: Paul did not have a modern understanding of biology when he categorized living creatures as “man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Does this error in material fact mean that the underlying spiritual truth of the letter should be dismissed?
Absolutely not. Despite Paul’s unscientific laundry list of creatures, there is still religious wisdom in worshiping the wholeness of uncreated God, in whom all things are reconciled, rather than worshiping images as represented in God’s creatures, whether those creatures be living or not.
In spite of its material errors, the text is still morally and spiritually valid.
Let’s read on:
1:24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Paul’s more general statement here, using “created things” rather than a list of examples, is much more to the point, and less likely to being rendered obsolete by new discoveries about Creation. Turning away the Universal to worship the particular, those whom Paul describes were given over to self-destructive fetishism.
The connection seems reasonable.
The Alleged Proof Text
Then follow the key verses:
1:26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
Given Paul’s 1st Century understanding of nature, and the primitive system of classification he has already demonstrated in regard to “man and birds and animals and reptiles,” it is reasonable to ask: is the category of behavior he is condemning identical to the category “homosexuality” as we understand it more fully today?
Since Paul first identifies the sin (turning away from the Creator to worship creatures) and then identifies same-sex activity as one of the consequences, Paul is not saying that all homosexual behavior is a sin. He’s saying that same-sex lust can be among the symptoms of idolatry.
And, “homosexuality” is much, much more than simply same-sex lust. People driven purely by lust don’t want marriage; as any married couple will tell you, usually in jest, it’s about the closest thing to an antidote to lust yet devised!
But, let’s see what the context of Paul’s condemnation reveals by continuing onward:
1:28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
That’s quite a litany of selfish behavior! People who behave in a “senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” manner are undeniably depraved, and those who don’t “think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God” could certainly be deemed reprehensible from a religious perspective.
But do these things define a moral dividing line between heterosexuality and homosexuality? Do they describe all gay behavior, and exclude all straight behavior? For example, are those homosexuals who honor loving, monogamous relationships “faithless, heartless, ruthless”?
Of course not. However, those who are rampantly and recklessly promiscuous could be described that way, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Can those who seek to attest, often before God, their commitments in marriage be described as “God-haters” who “do not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God”?
Of course not. However, it is still true that anyone who justifies their licentiousness by dismissing the idea of a moral standard outside themselves certainly can be described that way, whether they express their wanton indulgence through lust, greed, or rage. Or, as Paul lays it out, through “envy, murder, strife, deceit [or] malice.”
This is not to say that wanton, lascivious, amoral homosexual behavior of the type described by Paul does not exist. It certainly does exist, just as wanton, lascivious, amoral heterosexual behavior exists. And, in an ancient society driven by the traditional mother-and-father family, wanton homosexuality can certain seem like a category unto itself, just as “birds” might seem distinct from “animals” in a society without a sophisticated science of zoology.
But, if we are talking about faithless, heartless, ruthless, God-hating behavior as a general moral and spiritual category, all same-sex relationships certainly do not fall under this broad stroke of the apostle’s brush, and it is our responsibility as serious devotees of Christian morality and spirituality to see beyond the dust in Paul’s mortal eyes to find the God-breathed truth with which he was entrusted.
How to Understand God’s Intent
One final objection: if homosexual behavior is not categorically “faithless, heartless, ruthless,” what about “senseless”? Are homosexuals behaving in a way that defies sense and reason? After all, you don’t need a degree in biology to understand the difference between male and female.
Applying outside standards of sense and reason to biblical morality is a touchy subject for scripturalists and bibliolaters, so let’s see what the Letter itself says about how can we identify God’s Eternal and Universal intent, behind the creaturely limitations of God’s mortal servant Paul.
Take a look at the verses introducing the proof text above:
1:18 The wrath of God is being revealed from Heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
The Creator’s invisible qualities have been known “since the creation of the world,” meaning long before the existence of scripture and therefore independent of scripture, and are “understood from what has been made,” i.e., by studying the created world.
It is our duty as Christians and servants of the One True Creator God to seek truth not merely in the mouths of God’s mortal servants, but by studying “what has been made” by God. This dedication to rationalism would not only lead us to question the material facticity of Paul’s categories of living things, but also the completeness of his understanding of sex, without having to doubt the Divine inspiration of his underlying moral lesson.
We now know that the role of sexual behavior in humans (as God has made us through the natural laws of His Creation) extends far beyond mere procreation. Indeed, if procreation were the only justification for sex, moral societies should criminalize not only homosexual behavior, but also heterosexual behavior with the infertile. There should be no marriage beyond menopause, and a positive sperm count should be required as a license for courtship.
These are absurd ideas, because we know that sex is about more than creating children. And, we know this by studying “what has been made” by God, just as Paul’s inspired words advise.
Sex plays many positive social and psychological roles among human beings that are not necessarily confined to heterosexuality. Behavior that defies all of the positive roles of sexuality certainly could be condemned as “senseless,” but not behavior that fulfills all of these roles but one.
If procreation were the only moral purpose of sex, then heterosexual rape that results in pregnancy would be preferable to a life-long, faithful homosexual marriage nurturing multiple adopted children. Talk about “senseless!”
This senselessness is in defiance of what we understand of human nature by studying “what has been made,” and therefore in defiance of what we know about God “from what has been made,” and therefore in defiance of the spiritual truth in Paul’s Letter.
While it certainly is Christian to condemn “senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” sexual behavior that knows no love or sense of commitment, to condemn sexuality simply because it doesn’t lead to conception serves not God’s purpose, but the idolatry of a creaturely fetish about heterosexuality.
“Suppressing the Truth By Their Wickedness”
By turning a rational eye to the objects of Creation, it is clear that there is a distinct difference between those for whom homosexual behavior is a matter of love, sacrifice in love, and commitment of character, and those for whom homosexual behavior is reduced to an obsessive fetish.
And, there is little difference between homosexual and heterosexual fetishism. As sins that respect no genuine moral law, they know no boundary between each other and are often embedded in the very same soul. We find “senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” homosexual behavior often in the context of a fetishistically heterosexual lifestyle, typified by homophobia and worshiping the idols of parenthood and scripture.
Those like evangelical leader Ted Haggard and Republican Senator Larry Craig, who indulge in homosexual behavior as a twisted and suppressed obsession rather than an expressed and innate part of their psychological make-up, can certainly be condemned for being given to “unnatural” behavior due to their faith in created things, particularly their homophobic bibliolatry. Fetishism of this sort, as Paul’s Letter asserts, is the result of perversions caused by turning away from all-embracing God to the worship of created things, mere images.
“Literalist” worship of scripture as perfect and sufficient is precisely this sort of image-worship. So is the cult of the family, which Jesus explicitly preached against. As homophobic preachers demonstrate again and again, familialist bibliolaters who turn away from God and “suppress the truth” of human sexuality end up “senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” and given to “shameful lusts.”
A clear line has to be drawn between homosexual behavior as natural psychology, informed by commitment and character, vs. homosexual behavior as an “unnatural” psychology, absent of moral boundaries. This same line must be drawn through heterosexual behavior as well.
Moreover, this line should be drawn by those who try to understand “God’s invisible qualities” “from what has been made,” not those who “suppress the truth by their wickedness” by denying what “God has made plain to them.” Here, as always, the perceived conflict between Eternal wisdom and changing society is an illusion created by small-mindedness and error.
Given the knowledge to be learned from God’s own Creation using their God-given reason, these bigots “are without excuse,” as Paul’s Letter makes very clear.