Homosexuality, Science, And The Plain Sense Of Scriptureby David L. Balch
Elucidates the pros and cons of current Christian discussion on the question of homosexuality. Challenges partisan views and provides a balanced discussion.
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Muddling Through: The Church
MARK G. TOULOUSE
An examination of Christian struggles dealing with the issue of human sexuality indicates the emergence of some clear trends over the last forty years that should be taken seriously. Of course, taking trends too seriously can be dangerous. Trends are not hard-and-fast realities. By their very nature, trends are simply trends. They have not completely materialized and reached their final resting place. They point in a particular direction, but pointing does not mean absolutely that things are ultimately going to end up the way they are heading. Trends can be depressing or hopeful. But the people who make these responses to trends need to recognize that things can change; trends do not define future reality. People and events do that by the way they interact between now and then, just as the trends to be discussed here have emerged from the way people and events have interacted over the past forty years.
A word about the context for these emerging trends needs to be said as well. If you, the reader, could get into a time machine; set the date back to about forty years ago, perhaps around November 1956; turn the dial for a traveling destination to any city in America; and push the start button, when the machine stopped and the door opened you would find yourself in a very strange place indeed. Dwight D. Eisenhower would have just won his second term as president. You might pick up a newspaper and read editorials about the Soviet crushing ofHungarian freedom fighters the month before, or about the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott led by twenty-eight-year-old Martin Luther King. If you landed in Los Angeles, you might want to visit two-year-old Disneyland, where you could plunk down $2.72 for admission and rides, and another 18¢ for souvenirs, things like Disneyland pennants, maps, and Donald Duck caps.
What would you see around you relating to the topic of homosexuality in the fall of 1956? Not much. It simply was not a topic of conversation. There weren't any trends because it was mostly invisible. It was present, and in about the same percentages as now. But people lived hidden lives with their own forms of hidden pain. For purposes of this discussion, in a time when many members of most churches are weary of extended discussions about homosexuality because it seems the discussion has lasted forever, it is important to recall that meaningful discussion has really been relatively short-lived in the context of the church's history, even if one limits that history to a consideration of the church in America.
As soon as you stepped out of your time machine, you could, however, get a sense of the uptight way most Christians dealt with sexuality by reading magazines describing the cultural phenomenon known as "rock `n' roll." White leadership in Birmingham condemned it as part of a "Negro plot" against whites. Roman Catholic leaders in Boston wanted all Catholics to boycott the music. Time magazine, representing the older generation, listed among the characteristics of the music the fact that it usually contains "a choleric saxophone honking mating-call sounds."
Christianity Today, in some ways the voice of what we commonly describe as American evangelicalism in the early 1960s, mourned the passing of the days when Pat Boone could be trusted. His involvement with rock `n' roll and white shoes had transformed his character. During his film State Fair (1962), the journal editorialized, a "sideshow girl" danced with "seductive abandon" and captured Boone in "as torrent and violent love-making as is possible to depict on a screen." Few would describe that scene that way today. By the standards of 1962, most American Christians today would be liberals.
Liberal Protestants, represented by the pages of the Christian Century, waited until 1960 to respond to Elvis Presley, but their response was no less uncomplimentary than evangelical concern about Pat Boone. When Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, his "revolting exhibitionism," with its "two wiggles and ... two songs," underscored "the depth of decadence" society had reached, as well as the damage the "new media of communication" could wreak on family values. No less a liberal authority than the New York Times described his "one specialty" in 1956 as "an accented movement of the body that hitherto has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blond bombshells of the burlesque runway." I suppose, as part of the context for the church's discussion of human sexuality, it would be good to remember that liberal positions tend to look increasingly conservative as time passes.
"Liberal" and "conservative" are, of course, relative terms. Some of my relatives think I am conservative; other relatives think I am liberal. This little piece of anecdotal evidence is mentioned to illustrate just how relative such terms are. Though the terms are problematic, they are shorthand for differences between individuals and groups of Christians. My use of the terms carries with it the recognition that, though they are not totally useless, they are often foggy and ambiguous.
The terms "evangelical" and "mainline" (or "mainstream") are themselves troublesome in many respects. By using the term "evangelical," I mean to denote those church groups who traditionally have not been active in the National Council of Churches. Evangelicals generally stress biblical authority and emphasize the need for individuals to experience personally the grace of God leading to salvation, usually described by such terms as "new birth" or "conversion" or being "born again." They place high value on an individual's relation to God and promote evangelism as probably the most effective tool in the church's fight against the sins of society. There are, however, vast differences between and among evangelicals on many issues. Evangelicals themselves cannot agree precisely about what it means to be an evangelical.
The term "mainline" is difficult to get a hold on as well. If one means by it to describe those churches possessing large memberships and powerful identities, the groups described by the term have certainly changed since the 1950s. By this definition many of the evangelical churches would definitely qualify as mainline. My use of the term follows the one suggested by Richard G. Hutcheson, Jr., in 1981: "large historical denominations having membership reflecting great diversity, but leadership and official positions putting them generally in the liberal, ecumenically included and socially concerned wing of Christians."
Today's postdenominational context has made such lines harder to draw. Many traditional mainline churches today contain individuals who would define themselves as evangelicals. Some individuals among evangelicals might define themselves as mainline, though this is more unlikely since the latter term has fallen into such disrepute in recent years. Some traditional mainline churches might today more accurately be described as "sideline" churches, since they have lost much of the cultural leadership they enjoyed in earlier decades. On the whole, clear lines of division and clear definitions do not work very well these days. With these caveats in place, I will still use these terms to distinguish between the "conservative"-leaning Christian groups and the more generally "liberal" ones.
Time machine travel would reveal the state of Christianity to be unbelievably good in 1956. The 1950s "revival" of "religion in general" was one of the dominating features of the domestic situation in America at this time. Church membership rose steadily (five percentage points) during the early part of the decade. Two years before your time machine landed, Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. The words "In God We Trust" were officially adopted as the national motto in 1956. Corporations and civic organizations decided that providing outlets for prayer made good business sense. Church building boomed. Religious book sales soared. Television, the propaganda potential of which people were only beginning to realize, spread religious images far and wide. Billy Graham's urban crusades were packed with people, and he became America's most well-known religious figure for the next several decades. By the end of the 1950s, nearly 69 percent of Americans were church members. The trend was very good for the church, and it looked like the whole population would be attending church by the 1970s. What happened?
Martin E. Marty suggested that, by the end of the 1950s, the revival, rather than benefiting Protestantism, actually served as the agent to usher in the "post-Protestant" years of American life. Rather than reviving Christianity, the revival actually took its place. It fostered "an attitude toward religion" which Marty claimed became "a religion itself." Whereas the "old shape" of American religion had been "basically Protestant," the "new shape" became something else. Protestantism's power "as virtual monopolist in penetrating and molding the religious aspect of national culture" had "disappeared." For the most part, the cultural revival presented a God who was "understandable and manageable, ... an American jolly good fellow." Rather than thinking of God as the one who sent Jesus Christ to save all humanity, including the communists, Americans tended to think of God as an American, just like them. And this led many American Christians to confuse the trappings of their culture with God's will. For these Christians, women belonged in the kitchen and blacks belonged in menial jobs; certainly God never intended for blacks and whites to live in the same neighborhoods. For Protestants, culture reflected what they perceived to be their values.
But change was brewing in the land. Catholicism, as illustrated by Kennedy's victory in 1960, had finally made great strides toward the equal footing it deserved in American culture. By the mid-1960s, other religious expressions became both more common and more visible in America. Rapid urbanization, technology, mobility, an emerging drug culture, a rebellious generation of youth, a civil rights movement, a fledgling feminist movement, the beginnings of an Asian war all contributed to an atmosphere where traditional Protestant values in America were seriously challenged.
The pluralism represented by these changes affected the Christian response to sexual issues as well. Developments within culture always affect the way the church thinks about important issues. The trends of the last forty years illustrate the fact that the church simply cannot avoid its cultural context when it theologizes about sexual ethics. A discussion of these trends will also bring more clarity to the concept of the muddled middle and what those situated there, regardless of significant theological differences, are coming to share in common.
I do not intend for the term "muddled middle" to carry with it a necessarily negative connotation. Some confusion is always a good thing in that it prevents individuals and groups from taking a self-righteous perspective of these issues. The muddle of the middle represents, as well, the diversity that exists within subgroups of Christianity, some of whom possess a fair degree of clarity in their thinking but without what might be described as consensus. Further, I am using the term "muddle" somewhat in the old English sense of "muddling through" by encouraging continued discussion and debate in order to advance public understanding and create the proper environment for a careful and deliberative process. Finally, part of the muddle of the middle may arise due to the development of a broad consensus on values (caring, response to people's needs, importance of human relationships, etc.), while complete consensus concerning the issues raising "values" kinds of questions remains, at present, unachievable.
Four Trends Related to Sexuality in General
1. The first trend emerged from the sexual revolution. Though rejected in the main by most Christians, the sexual revolution has led many Christian theologians to shift from a rule-oriented ethic toward a more realistic assessment of the context of sexual activity.
Most Christians, left and right, rejected Joseph Fletcher's Situation Ethics, one of the major books offering an ethical rationale for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. In 1964 Robert Fitch, dean at the Pacific School of Religion, spoke for many when he said trends associated with Fletcher scared him so much they almost made him want to become a Catholic. But many Christians, as a result of the sexual revolution, did begin to ask contextual questions instead of merely referring to rules. They shifted from an emphasis on sex as an act to an emphasis on sexuality as involving a relationship. This trend has been more active among the moderate-to-liberal Christians than among the more conservative Christians.
The foundation for this new morality rested in the work of contextual ethicists like H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Lehmann. Both published books in 1963 that captured the style of ethics they had long represented in their work. As James T. Laney put it:
[T]hey insisted upon an appreciation of both the historical and the contemporary social contexts in discerning the will of God in a given situation. They allowed scriptural tradition to define their perspective, but not to delimit their horizon; they appreciated the novelty of God's demand, but insisted upon its being concordant with the life and teachings of Christ; and they emphasized the personal element, but set up means by which it was to be informed by an equal sense of responsibility, both to others and to God.
The work of Niebuhr and Lehmann is, however, barely recognizable in the more simplistic ethic of Situation Ethics (1966), by Joseph Fletcher, the theologian of the sexual revolution. Fletcher's ethic, in his words, "subordinates principles to circumstances and the general to the particular, as well as making the `natural' and the biblical and the theoretical give way to the personal and the actual." For Fletcher, writing in 1966, all of Christian ethics is reduced to the act of love. What does love demand of the situation? Fletcher's work provided after-the-fact legitimation for sexual changes already well practiced in the culture. It also paved the way for increasing family squabbles in the mainline.
In May 1967 the first sympathetic exploration of the "new morality" appeared in the pages of the Christian Century. Cyrus Pangborn, chair of the department of religion at Douglass College of Rutgers, stressed the "pervasive and creative nature of sexuality as a dimension of being." He challenged the view that sexuality can or should be regulated by the imposition of law:
The immediate reply of the traditionalists is that this simply makes sex easy for everyone. But this misses the new moralists' point: sex as act is only the objective, the external, expression of our sexuality; sexuality is a `dimension' rather than an addable or subtractable part of our being.... If this concept of sexuality were generally understood, some adult confusion about the changing roles of fathers and mothers, about youthful hairdos and clothing styles would be dispersed. The worry, so an endless stream of articles tells us, is that men can't feel masculine while changing diapers, that women can't feel feminine as chairmen of corporation boards, that boys aren't masculine if they wear their hair long, that girls can't be feminine if they wear shirts and levis.... It could be that today's dressed-to-look-alikes are mounting unconscious protest against the widespread belief that sex is external, are indirectly suggesting that the inner awareness of sexuality can be recovered only when limiting symbolic expressions of it are discarded.... What [new morality] does call for is an end to the isolation of sex as a set of external acts and an integration of enriched notions of sexuality into our view of what comprises wholeness, complete personhood.
The new moralists hoped to redefine the meaning of sexual sin. In their view sexual sin was not so much the commission of a sexual act that violated a particular, and always consistent, Christian rule. Instead, sexual sin involved dehumanization of others, acting in ways that deny what it means to be human as defined by the loving God who became fully human.
Such thinking led some of these theologians to rethink the traditional Christian taboo regarding premarital sex. Reinhold Niebuhr recognized certain distinctions one should make in premarital sex and called for "discriminating wisdom in young people and their guides," which in its own way left the ethical door open for the possibility of sexual intercourse before marriage for engaged couples. Harvey Cox put it more bluntly: "[W]e must face the real question of whether avoidance of intercourse beforehand is always the best preparation." He urged that guidance be given to specific persons in specific contexts and toward the end that conduct will "serve to strengthen the chances of sexual success and fidelity in marriage." Cox set forth an evangelical sexual ethic he felt would provide a better way:
[P]reaching the Gospel ... means making clear the distorted images of sex from which the Gospel delivers us.... it entails protecting sex as a fully human activity against all the principalities and powers that seek to dehumanize it. In our day these include the forces, both within and without, that pervert sex into a merchandising technique, a means of self-aggrandizement, a weapon for rebelling against parents, a recreational pursuit.... Evangelical ethics cease to be Law and once again become Gospel when the Word liberates people from cultural conventions and social pressures, when persons discover their sexuality as a delightful gift of God that links them in freedom and concern to their fellows.
As evidenced in The Secular City (1963), Cox represented an unqualified optimism about the ability of human beings to be problem solvers. Though he seemed to underestimate, for most theologians at the time and in retrospect, a failure to appreciate the power of sin generally, and some might argue especially so in matters related to sexuality, he did lift the popular discussion of sexual ethics to a new level. And the trend since has generally affirmed the importance of the relational character of sexual activity.
2. Second, in response to the birth control pill, the trend has been toward the development of a new sexual ethic stressing marriage, the positive place of sex within it, and the essential unity of body and spirit as a key component of human sexuality.
If you picked up a newspaper when you stepped out of the time capsule in November 1956, you might read that G. D. Searle and Company was about to release a new pill that prevented conception during sexual intercourse. This little pill, when it became publicly available around 1960, changed the course of human sexuality. Besides being a major contributing factor in the sexual revolution, it led Christians to understand that they did not possess a good sexual ethic. In the age before the pill, the Christian sexual ethic was an abstinence based upon the fears of "infection, detection, [and] conception." Parents warned their children not to fool around because they might get venereal disease, get caught, or get pregnant. In the age of the pill and the condom, Christians began to emphasize the role sex played in embodying "the mutual dependence, the utter need of one for the other" that is God's will for marriage.
Within this more positive approach, Christians came to stress "the theological doctrines of creation, incarnation and resurrection" as they related to sex. Each of these three doctrines made clear the Christian affirmation of the "goodness of the physical dimension of life." Sex is a gift from God. Christians sounded a theme that has become important in Christian sexual ethics during the last three decades: the body and spirit are unified and, together, are central to what it means to be human. Leaders among both right-leaning and left-leaning Christians helped to develop a Christian ethical approach to sex that renounced the "sexual dualism" of earlier tradition. Most in the muddled middle continue to believe in the unity of body and spirit, though they still have not done a good job of reaching agreement (or even of accomplishing meaningful discussion) around the implications of this belief.
3. Third, one of the great accomplishments of both the feminist and sexual revolutions during these forty years has rested in their ability to expose sexist attitudes. As a result, the trend in many Christian groups has been to remove such attitudes and to affirm more meaningfully the equality of women, both within the life of the church and within their role as sexual beings.
Christians have had to reconsider presuppositions that had long supported the traditional standards of sexuality taught by the church, especially those dealing with gender roles. Walking out of your mythical time machine, you would discover most Americans believing that female sexuality found its ideal in devoted women who served their husband's needs and the needs of the household. Movies portrayed the dangers of aggressive women by showing that such characters ruined their marriages and found tragic ends before the final credits rolled across the silver screen. Many connected sex in marriage with an inferior view of women, and the culture itself supported a double standard where women were concerned.
Theologians of the time addressed the double standard. In early 1964 Helmut Thielicke came close to providing a theological rationale for it. A chapter of his book The Ethics of Sex appeared in the Christian Century. "It is, so to speak," he wrote, "the `vocation' of the woman to be lover, companion and mother." A woman is created to give her whole "`self' when she gives herself sexually, ... whereas the husband brings in only a part, a very substantial part, but still only a part, of himself." The double standard of morality "does have some basis which we would not wish to be understood as legitimation of it! in the physiological structure of the sex organs ... the woman receives something from the sexual encounter, ... whereas the man discharges and thus rids himself of something." Though Thielicke had no intention of promoting the double standard, his theological explanation of the nature ("animal") of man being "polygamous" and that of woman being "monogamous" provided an ontological excuse for men who were not particularly drawn to the Christian demands of agape.
Reinhold Niebuhr echoed these calls for the recognition of the differences between male and female sexuality. Because "the woman is so intimately related to the family impulse, ... she is frequently the reluctant partner in premarital intercourse. She submits herself for only one of two reasons: because she loves the man and regards her action as a proof of her love; or because she wants to bind the man to her in reciprocal love." Here the woman is portrayed as either the hopeless romantic or the deceptive seductress. Neither is a great role for women to have to play in order to express their human sexuality.
Of course, more damaging still was the theological argument contrasting "the creative, redemptive initiative of God with the receptive, humble response of Israel" where "God calls Israel to be his wife." With this point Robert Osborn, associate professor of religion at Duke University, hoped for a return to the use of the sexual language from the Bible to discuss proper roles in marriage for men and women. These roles would help prevent the woman from filling "her need for a man by playing the male part herself" by "competing more openly for the male position in society." The dilemma Americans faced, according to Osborn, was in no small measure due to the theological work of people like Harvey Cox, Thomas J. J. Altizer, and the new feminist theologians. Their work "castrated theology." "I would say" he wrote, "that the knowledge of God is no longer a matter of intercourse but of masturbation." Such quips marked the beginning of serious family conflicts in the mainline camp.
For many years fundamentalists and evangelicals had difficulty viewing passion, even within marriage, very positively. And when they finally did, they tended to connect it with an inferior view of women. Moderate evangelicals today have abandoned both their views on the inferiority of women and their emphasis on rules in favor of stressing the importance of "truthful relationships," the "personal responsibility for one another's larger lives" made possible only in marriage.
Many mainline and evangelical theologians during the 1960s were actually trying to keep sexuality in its private sphere, with every dimension of it held in its so-called proper place. No longer are sexual issues purely individual or solely private, reserved for hushed conversations between lovers or between parent and child (if those conversations ever took place). Trends point to a sexuality that has found a very public voice. The church can no longer afford to ignore the full meaning of sexuality. The events of these years after the sexual revolution have exposed sexist attitudes for what they are. The church has had to face and reconsider presuppositions that have long undergirded the traditional standards of sexuality in the church, especially those dealing with gender roles and sexual orientation. Though there are continuing theological differences among those occupying the muddled middle, characteristic of all of them have been an increasing sophistication in articulating the importance of the role of women in the church and in sexual relationships and the desire to eliminate the double standard in human sexuality.
4. Vatican II and other developments in American culture have led to a growing compatibility over the last four decades between Catholics and Protestants in America on the issue of sexuality.
American Catholics in general responded more slowly to the claims of the sexual revolution than some Protestants did. Throughout the 1950s and much of the 1960s, birth control caused them great consternation as they struggled to hold the line against it, finally reconciling themselves to it by 1967, thereby joining the muddled middle on the issue. Sections in chapter I of Schema 13, the Vatican II document on marriage in the modern world, likely had something to do with these more liberal views, as did the 1967 report of the papal commission on birth control that recommended acceptance of artificial birth control methods. The conciliar document accepted the communion of conjugal love as an equal end in marriage alongside the procreation and education of children. Gone were any emphases on the "primary and secondary ends of marriage." In this way the council gave sex in marriage an entirely new status in Catholic thought.
Ignoring the majority report of the papal study commission on the subject, Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical, Humanae Vitae (Human Life), in 1968 condemning all forms of artificial birth control. American church leaders expressed great disappointment. John Cogley, writing for Catholic America, emphasized that "the Humanae Vitae debacle marked a fundamental change in the character of American Catholicism. Reverential deference to the pronouncements of a reigning pontiff would probably never be the same again." From this point on, Catholic leadership in America moved toward new expressions in the area of human sexuality. These tendencies brought American Catholics and the more moderate of American Protestants much closer together in their thinking about human sexuality.
Charles Curran's work challenging traditional Catholic notions of the natural law also contributed to this convergence between Catholics and Protestants. "Catholic theologians," he wrote in 1966, "have been afraid of the consequences that might come from any leak in the dike; but a realistic morality must come to grips with the ambiguity presented by the existence of sin in the world." In Curran's view, natural law theory did not take seriously enough the "disrupting influence of sin in the world." He accented "the incarnational character of Christian life." He reminded readers that Christian morality rests in Christ and calls Christians to live "out of the new life we have received, the existence that flows from our baptismal rebirth in Christ, the fruit of the Spirit Who dwells within us and transforms our beings" His emphasis for thinking about human sexuality was decidedly placed on the theological meaning of the new creation.
Curran urged Catholic moral theologians to take more seriously the reality of situations mature Christians face and to recognize the concept of compromise in human actions. "In the face of the sinful situation man must do the best he can." This critique of Catholic natural theology coincided with Protestant expressions of the "new morality" during the 1960s, especially in its emphasis on the importance of the situation in which moral decisions must be made.
On a more popular level, American Catholics knew they had to deal with the sexual revolution when a Boston Globe poll of Massachusetts youth in 1970 revealed that 79 percent of Catholic college students thought premarital sex was acceptable for people in love, and 64 percent said they had no problem with unmarried couples living together. Official church responses to these developments were continually ineffective in America. In 1975 the church issued Declaration on Certain Questions concerning Sexual Ethics. This document reiterated the standards of traditional morality, including complete condemnation of both masturbation and homosexuality.
In response, the Catholic Theological Society of America, the major professional association of American Catholic theologians, issued the results of its own study. A group of five Catholic theologians had been appointed in 1972 to study Christian sexual ethics and published its report in 1977. Titled Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought, this report revealed a significant and organized effort among American Catholics to integrate modern thought and Christian faith in this area.
According to Rosemary Ruether's early assessment of the document, it represented "a major effort to shift the basis of sexual ethics from act-oriented to person-oriented principles." Resting on Scripture, tradition, and the empirical sciences as a sort of tripod of authority, the report criticized the outdated dimensions of the natural law and condemned its preoccupation with procreation. A Catholic ethic that "treated masturbation as a more serious sin than rape, since the former `wasted the seed' while the latter preserved ... procreation" had to be challenged. The document set the "person-oriented ethics of Jesus" over against "the patriarchalism of the Old Testament and the later Pauline tradition."
Sounding like Harvey Cox, the Society described a "humanized sexuality" that is "self-liberating, other-affirming, honest, faithful, socially responsible, life-serving and joyous." (One critic jokingly foresaw "a questionnaire in every bedroom.") Dehumanization occurs when sex consistently negates one or another of these humanizing principles. As Ruether put it,
The study also discards all double standards of sexual ethics that judge women differently from men, single persons (including celibates) differently from married persons, and homosexuals differently from heterosexuals. All persons, in whatever walk of life or sexual orientation, are sexual beings who must find self-development through sexual maturation. The standards of humanizing versus dehumanizing sexuality can be applied equally to all....
This document was a liberal cutting edge for American Catholicism (writers in America clearly opposed its conclusions), and for American Christianity, in its undifferentiated treatment of heterosexuality and homosexuality. This view allowed for sexuality among all singles, provided such conduct was clearly "creative and integrative of the human person." The report also illustrates the growing compatibility between liberal Protestant and liberal Catholic theological understanding in America after Vatican II. But the liberal views of both faced serious opposition from more moderate Christians, especially concerning homosexuality. Even so, Catholics and Protestants found more significant areas of agreement as both abandoned the rule- and act-oriented approaches to human sexuality, paid more attention to contexts and situations, and took more seriously the role of women.
Meet the Author
David L. Balch is Professor of New Testament at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. He is the author of Roman Domestic Art and Early House Churches (2007)
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