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IN THE CHURCH'S ONGOING DISCUSSIONS AND DEBATES OVER SEXUALITY, BOTH sides have advanced their arguments. I sometimes feel the debaters are talking past each other, and that they are coming from totally different conceptual worlds. The problem appears to lie in the premises (or assumptions) that underlie the differing points of view. If we are to come to a resolution of our differences—and it is a big if—it will be important to begin with certain agreed-upon principles, if we can, and work step-by-step through to that resolution. So what I am attempting in this volume is to begin to unpack, challenge and revisit (and perhaps revise) the underlying premises or assumptions of the traditional view, in an effort to get behind the "reassertions." Along the way, I will lay out some of the rationale for what is sometimes called the "revisionist" view—though the revision may sometimes be a return to an older understanding rather than the adoption of a new one. The goal will be to see if there is any basis of agreement from which a different settlement might be reached, or if we really are thinking and working from two radically incompatible bases. I know that some will not be willing to take this journey, fully convinced of the rightness of the so-called traditional view on one hand, or the pointlessness of trying to demonstrate the obvious need and rationale for change in that tradition on the other. But I hope that a review of the tradition itself may also open up some avenues for fruitful exploration.
I will, of course, want to deal with all of the apparatus of Scripture and reason as well. I will in part be challenging the rational basis of a negative view of same-sex relationships, because the traditionalist assertion often goes beyond a merely religious disapproval. That is, many if not most of those who think "homosexuality is wrong" do not see it as wrong merely in a religious sense—the way, for example, an Orthodox Jew might say that it is wrong to eat pork, but not hold a Gentile to that standard—but wrong in a moral or ethical or even legal sense, rightly subject not only to religious reproof, but to secular regulation as well; in short, not only plainly immoral but by rights illegal. All things that are illegal are generally seen as immoral; but not all things deemed immoral by some should also be illegal for all. Theocracy is not, at least on American shores, a welcome form of government; and we learned through Prohibition the danger of legislating morals. Still, in the present case, some are urging legal or even constitutional action.
The church does influence the secular society in which it finds itself, and can often be a force for good. The concern here is for care and prudence, and the virtue of humility. If what the church is teaching is correct, then by all means it should have impact on the world. But if it is wrong—well, Christian churches of all traditions have more than a few embarrassing skeletons in their closets.
As a part of that humility concerning its moral theology, not all in the church who hold any number of things to be immoral wish or work for them to be illegal in a pluralistic society. However, in the present case, there are more than a few religious conservatives who are also willing to see (at the extreme) state sanctions against same-sex relationships, or (at a minimum) a denial of state approval in recognition of such relationships.
In order to make this case, expanding from the sacred to the secular realm, it is clear that the voices of the tradition have gone beyond a simple religious basis for their opinion. The primary evidence for this lies in the arguments often advanced, many of which go well beyond the scriptural material. Needless to say, a biblical prohibition would not, in a pluralistic society, avail to sway the state to adopt it. It is ironic, though, that even with the minimal references to same-sexuality in Scripture, secular courts in not-too-distant memory held up religious teaching as a rationale for continued state prohibitions. But as we will see, from the church's standpoint, if the scriptural case alone cannot bear sufficient weight to "settle" the matter for the church, then appeals to natural law, a purported good for society, or assertion of the complementarity of the anatomy of the sexes (to cite three common examples of additional arguments) become necessary.
Telling Right from Wrong
I would like, then, to turn to the various specific arguments, and the premises upon which the traditional case is most often made. It is important first of all to tease apart the general from the specific by asking what is held to be "wrong" about same-sex relationships, and "right" about mixed-sex relationships.
As a starting point, most of those who oppose same-sex relationships oppose all such relationships, regardless of qualities of fidelity, mutuality, and so on. Thus issues rightly and widely recognized as "moral" are held to be irrelevant. At the same time, the conservative view recognizes that these values exist, and are necessary in a mixed-sex relationship; that is, as commonly put, sexual relationships are appropriate only within the context of a faithful, life-long, loving, mixed-sex marriage. So it appears that the argument from the conservative position is reducible to the irreducible fact of the sex of the couple—the sex difference must be present for a sexual relationship even to be capable of being moral, so that even if a same-sex couple possesses all of the other moral values, the lack of sex-difference still renders the relationship, and any sexual activity within it, immoral.
What this must mean, logically, is that there is some character or quality inherent in the sex-difference that is morally determinative in and of itself, apart from any other aspect of the persons or their relationship. There are two such qualities often advanced as premises:
that the purpose of sexuality is procreation, and only heterosexual sex is capable of it;
that heterosexual sex represents a joining of two distinct complementaries.
In the next chapter I will address the first assertion.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
Is same-sex marriage, or any form of civil union or domestic partnership, provided for by civil law in the jurisdiction in which you live?
What kinds of restrictions on marriage are in force in your town/city/state?
What kind of legal restrictions on same-sex couples exist in your town/city/state?
Can you think of other matters on which the state has taken a neutral view, in allowing actions you consider immoral?
On the other hand, are there things that the state restricts that you think should be permitted?
IT IS COMMONLY ASSERTED THAT THE ESSENTIAL PURPOSE OF SEXUALITY IS PROCREATION, and that procreation (and sexuality) are limited to marriage. I will demonstrate that not only is procreation not essential to marriage, but that its relationship to sexuality is not absolute; that it can be (and is) separated from other ends of marriage—the unitive, symbolic, social, and preventative—which in themselves, and apart from procreation, can and do form a proper basis for a sexual relationship within marriage.
Ways and means and blessings
Before entering into the specifics, I want to address the language of purpose and function or ends. In general, although this language has a place in the tradition, it seems to reflect an overly utilitarian ethic focused on results. I would prefer to follow another aspect of the Christian tradition that refers to the goods of marriage. In this view, sexuality is not simply a function, or the use of a person (or two persons' use of each other) towards some end or goal, but an act growing out of the love between persons that is open to the good that may come. Self-giving love, rather than self-asserting need, provides the basis for the action which grows out of the love, and which is a blessing in itself apart from any result.
In addition, purpose in this context implies an a priori assumption, a social or theological one at that. There is a difference even between a purpose and a function. Purpose sees sexuality not merely for what it does and how it does it, but as a naturally or divinely intended "plan for humanity"—depending upon one's world-view—as the result of a secular personified Nature or theological understanding of God. It is important, therefore, to be aware of this subtext in the secular and sacred tradition before proceeding.
Defining the goods
Avoiding both purpose and function at the outset, most people (including those outside the faith) would agree that human sexuality appears to have two principal goods, procreation and union. (The reflective or symbolic good, in which marriage serves as an image for the relationship between Christ and the church, or God and Israel, is solely theological. I will address union and reflection in subsequent chapters, as well as a cause or end of marriage that has dropped both from most contemporary discussions and from the preface to the Episcopal marriage liturgy: marriage as a remedy for fornication, for those who lack the gift of celibacy.)
The church has (until fairly recent times) traditionally emphasized procreation over union, but it appears that such an emphasis is not well supported by Scripture, reason, or even other elements of the tradition. In this and succeeding chapters I hope to sketch out a number of points concerning the various goods of sexuality, and consequently, of marriage.
In the process I will demonstrate that procreation is neither essential to marriage, nor the principle good of human sexuality. I use the word human intentionally, in order to highlight the fact that sex and sexuality are not unique to human beings. We share membership in a species predominantly male or female, and our limited capacity to reproduce sexually, with most animals and many plants. It has been observed in the past that expending theological energy on the mere existence of the sexes and the capacity to reproduce—which is part of our animal nature—shifts the focus away from what makes us truly human and serves as locus for the image of God in human form: our capacity to love and to reason.
The witness of nature
No one would claim that sex has nothing to do with procreation; rather it is obvious that the existence of male and female in many species of animals and plants is a part of the natural process by which life is perpetuated. It is not, of course, the only means of such propagation, and many forms of life, including some vertebrates, reproduce without making use of sexual differentiation or sexual intercourse.
However, when it comes to human beings, it is trivial to observe that the existence of male and female, and their capacity for sexual intercourse, is intimately connected with procreation. The natural law tradition takes this as given. But that is, in part, why this tradition is of little use in the present discussion, as it begs the question: it assumes as a premise the very matter under discussion, that is, that procreation is the primary purpose for or good of sex.
The difficulties with ends-based natural law arguments in this regard, which are advanced against birth control as much as against same-sexuality, in particular those that focus narrowly on the mechanics of sexual intercourse, are well summarized by Gerard J. Hughes in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics.
It is one thing to say that the natural function of the eye is to see. But even bodily organs can and do serve several functions. And if one asks of the body as a whole what its function is, the answer is much less clear. Even less clear is the answer to questions such as "What is the function of a human life?" or "What is the function of sexuality in a human life?" The way one might try to answer these questions seems quite unlike the way one might try to answer questions about the function(s) of the endocrine glands or the heart in the human body. The notion of "function" at this point becomes much more a matter of moral assessment than a scientific inquiry. ("Natural Law," 413)
Given that caveat, from an objective standpoint the following observations are telling, even in light of a functional or ends-based viewpoint:
Procreation is not simultaneous with intercourse, which in humans is not the planting of a seed (as the pre-modern world imagined it) but the placement of millions of sperm in a place where they are eventually capable of reaching a single ovum, at which point one sperm may fertilize it. Intercourse does not always lead to procreation. Any couple who has experienced difficulty in conception can attest to this fact; even fertile couples experience a completely natural separation between capacity to have sexual relations and the capacity to procreate, and not every sexual act results in conception. In addition, the human female does not have an estrus cycle, and unlike the females of many other species is sexually "available" at times when fertilization is not even possible. Procreation can take place entirely apart from intercourse (through artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization) and, perhaps needless to say, apart from marriage. Intercourse can take place when procreation is impossible or avoided. In addition to the "naturally infertile period" that is part of the menstrual cycle (which, as noted above, has no impact on ability or willingness to engage in sexual intercourse), women become infertile after menopause (this is not a "defect" but a part of the natural life process of the human female), and human beings can engage in intercourse when some other cause (intentional obstruction or incidental defect) prevents conception. From a sociological perspective, in looking at the question of "the function of sexuality in a human life" it is clear that sexuality has major social and cultural implications apart from procreation, and has taken many forms in many cultures.
At the same time, it is fair to notice the assertion (which some occasionally raise in such discussions) that every human being who ever lived is the result of sex between a man and a woman. This, however, in addition to overlooking conception via artificial means or in vitro, neglects three exceptions significant to the religious question—Adam, Eve, and more importantly, Jesus—which brings me to the witness of Scripture.
The witness of Scripture
There are times I have to confess that the utility of Scripture in helping us better to understand our current situation may be approaching its limit. Over the last thirty years I have seen texts tossed back and forth, twisted and stretched beyond their capacity, or shrunk to insignificance. When I consider how little the Scripture actually says about the presenting issue, and how much of what it says is in a limited vocabulary of half-a-dozen Hebrew and Greek words—some so rare they are only understood by conjecture, others capable of a range of figurative and literal application—and then take account of the energy of the debate, I begin to wonder at Scripture's ever providing us with a settlement to the matter.
Excerpted from REASONABLE and HOLY by Tobias Stanislas Haller Copyright © 2009 by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG. Excerpted by permission of Seabury Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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