Humanity has a curious relationship with sex. It obviously enjoys it—there are nearly seven billion people in the world and not all that output could be the fruit of duty. Yet, for a practice so widespread and frequent, its morality is surprisingly controversial. Given that the two strongest urges in the animal kingdom are those for food and reproduction, it’s also mysterious that one should receive all the moral attention. Religions are expert at constructing morals from nature and deriving values from facts. And what could be more natural than sex, which in most of the animal kingdom is indiscriminately performed? Why is this aspect of nature so hedged about with limitation? Isn’t it true that in both consumption and reproduction, life is at stake—in the former case that of the individual, in the latter of the species? And that both practices naturally combine a survival requirement with pleasant sensations? Just as with the consumption of food, sex organs provide sensory stimulation. It is beyond question that without these sensory incentives—if we were devoid of taste buds or bereft of sexual drive—far fewer of us would eat well enough and still fewer would bother with sex. There is therefore a natural rationality in the coalescence of function and feeling.
The Roman Catholic Church historically condemned sexual feeling while condoning the function; today it says only that feeling and function must at all times be inseparable. As against this, Christians—Roman Catholics included—don’t think it base to savor food, and most would consider it acceptable to discuss cuisine quite freely and to be cultivated in the gastronomic arts. There is not nearly the same allowance in the case of sexual leisure. To be sure, there is as good a case for modesty with sex as there is with food; but there is no immediately obvious reason why sex should be so highly moralized when it involves consenting adults. If it is beset with dangers, then surely we ought to deal with them as we would deal with any other dangers in life, primarily through education. At this point established religions ought to be beyond shaming people for giving in to very natural urges when no one is harmed.
Perhaps these remarks are banal but they merit emphasis because the influence of professional morality is still considerable—nowhere more considerable and harmful than in the official position of most Christian churches on the question of homosexuality. To say this is not to overlook the many churches that have embraced the natural variety of sexualities in human culture. The point is that the official opinion in many Christian churches, mostly evangelical, is decidedly against variety in sexual expression. This is what happens when mentality is made to prevail over mind, when an insensitive literalism is allowed to suspend the operations of free intelligence and humane feeling.
As part of its advancement, and as a consequence of the liberation of intellect from instinct, humankind has separated sex from mere reproduction. Homophobic Christians who have personally embraced this advancement—whether or not they care to admit the fact openly—are reluctant to confront its implications for those of a different sexual orientation. Too often Christians revert to the procreative argument in support of the thesis that homosexuality is “contrary to nature.” But in this sense so is contraception which, like gay sex, provides the opportunity to separate function from feeling, to curtail reproduction while allowing stimulation of the sex organs. How is the morality of one unprocreative act any more admissible, or natural, than the other? The truth is that the moral condition of both types of participants—judging from participation in the sex act alone—is the same.
To make a fair moral comparison, we have to keep all variables constant between the two types, and so must judge from participation in the sex act alone. Hence, the marriage of the heterosexual couple must be compared with its most approximate homosexual equivalent. By simply comparing the sexual act of one monogamously committed couple with another, the comparison shows little in the way of moral difference. Yet one group feels morally superior in their actions to the other. That makes the homophobic consumer of contraceptives a hypocrite. Of course, such a hypocrite will point to various texts in the Bible which reveal on the part of its authors a tribal fear of sexual variety in the human race. But it has never been clear just how exegesis absolves the hypocrite of hypocrisy.
The first thing that went wrong in the chain of rudimentary Christian reasoning was the appeal to nature, which often appears even before the scriptural quotation. Although ongoing research has revealed strong evidence of sexual diversity in the animal kingdom, including homosexual, bisexual, and nonreproductive sex, some Christians still do appeal to nature in defense of “sex for offspring only.” Of course, we would expect very few Christians to defend polygamy by appealing to nature, even though something quite like that goes on in much of the animal kingdom.
The final stance of this type of Christian must amount to something like this: “Homosexuals could enjoy sex, it just happens to be their extreme misfortune that they don’t find it enjoyable with members of the opposite sex, which means they must accept the fact that they are not to enjoy it at all, while the rest of us, blessed with wholesome sexual desires, can. If the homosexuals pray for deliverance, God will give them heterosexual desires. Then they, too, will be able to enjoy sex.”
Let’s not imagine that the therapeutic attempts by Christians at “repairing” the homosexual’s damaged condition are serving people well. Such heart-felt concern is more destructive than regenerative and good intentions often result in evil outcomes, particularly where imbecility is allowed to intervene. Small wonder that when asked late in life what had done the most to relieve human suffering in his lifetime, a prominent physician (and the father of Harvard biblical scholar Kirsopp Lake) once replied: “Anaesthesia and the decay of Christian theology,” with an accent on theology.
The trouble is that Jesus wasn’t a very intellectual person, but rather one with profound insight and access to that gentler morality which could already be traced in the older prophets of the nobler strain: Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah. But the system-builders and interpreters and lawyers ruined much that he had worked for, intellectualizing the every utterance of a man who was no intellectual. Perhaps the first great despoiler of Jesus was Paul, whose own intellect couldn’t help but get in the way of his missionary zeal. But there were others after Paul, right through to Nicea. Each contributed to the rise of systematic theology in the Christian faith, what Aldous Huxley called that “busy fantasy of jurists,” men who were “so far from having transcended selfness and the prejudices of education that they had the folly and presumption to interpret the universe in terms of the Jewish and Roman law with which they happened to be familiar,” and who in the process well ruined the best of what Jesus’s teaching had to offer.
Is it any wonder Jesus said, Woe unto ye lawyers? It wasn’t a secular legal profession he had immediately in mind (though for analogous reasons one suspects he might have taken aim at that) but the grand intellectual travestiers of divinity, the noble scholars of official orthodoxy and theological pretension, which strafed his nerves. This monstrous construction, built over several centuries, has been responsible for the greatest cruelties ever unleashed against humankind. And both Catholicism and Protestantism are no better than each other in this regard. Recall Luther’s fanatical doctrine, which he called “faith unto salvation” in his De Servo Arbitrio (“This is the acme of faith, to believe that God who saves so few and condemns so many, is merciful”) and think what a better world we might have inherited if this delusion hadn’t been broadcast as persistently and dogmatically as it has been.
Was Jesus not acutely in conflict with the religious system of his time? Why would he be any less dramatically opposed to a religious system at any other phase of history? Would he be so vain and blandished as to limit his strictures simply because the system now in place paraded in his name? Nothing is so fatal to the ideal as its realization; and no one knew this more keenly than Jesus. Look at his whole conduct and bearing: his insistence that the Kingdom of Heaven is within; his contempt towards ritual and adherence to the letter; his aversion to legalism, organized religion, and everything that went with it, including its hallowed days and places; his indifference to flattery and recognition even when it came from respectable society. Everything about him in the Gospels suggests he was radically incompatible with all that mainstream Christianity has become.
Church communities may be much more authentic bearers of the Christian ideal than organized and federated bodies, but there is still so much “system” in Christian thinking at every level of organization, even the most local. Its inherited labels, prejudices, and prepossessions are so entrenched that it proves very difficult to conduct insightful discourse in terms outside the constructed system. And this shows up in the mainstream attitude towards homosexuality. Of course, the biblical authors are at fault here too; for all the moral acuity some of them display—very ahead of their time—and in spite of their being the nominated spokespersons of divinity itself, they left very little which even the most sympathetic church father could have taken over and put to better use. One can see, even from a brief reading of the salient passages, how an already arid scholasticism armed with the biblical text would lead nowhere else but to a vilification of the homosexual. So there is a double slur—the literal writings and the inherited wisdom, mutually reinforcing each other in disapprobation of behavior that has been comprehensively misunderstood.
What are the outstanding inadequacies of the biblical position on homosexuality? They are few, but appalling enough to make almost the whole Christian project a menace to those many homosexuals with a religious sensitivity and a yearning for spiritual awareness. These facts about the Bible are incontrovertible, and no amount of hermeneutics can make up for them. The Bible maligns the homosexual unnecessarily and unhelpfully. It doesn’t raise humanity’s awareness of itself as regards the legitimate and natural variety of human sexual expression. It offers no sound reasons why homosexual love should be vilified. It confuses sexual degradation and homosexual attraction. It lumps indiscriminate sexual lust together with all expression of homosexual love, as if there were no difference. Its etiology, so far as it has one, is wholly unsatisfactory, failing utterly to square with the facts of reported clinical experience. It betrays no subtlety in its understanding of human psychology as it concerns homosexuality. It says nothing of the genuinely devoted, committed homosexual couples who live monogamously with fidelity and trust. It draws attention to the vengeance God is prepared to unleash on all homosexuals and, by contrast, depicts the mercy God is willing to bestow on specifically heterosexual departures from God’s sexual standards (as in the case of Samson, David, and a few other misogynists). The most explicit formulation of its position is given by Paul, who for ignorance, vindictiveness, and ruthlessness outdid himself in Romans 1. The etiology disclosed in this particular passage would be laughable if it weren’t for the unspeakable suffering it has caused to many thousands, perhaps millions, of homosexuals throughout the Christian era.
Human civilization has progressed from foraging and agricultural economies to industrial and informational ones. It is a long history of strife and change. At every point in this epic struggle there have been consequent changes in the gender roles. German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, for instance, pointed out that what distinguished the first human apes and hominids was the “familialization of the male,” the newly-created role that would fall to the father in the species involving him in the “productive hunt” and the “reproductive family.” As the female members weren’t involved in the hunt, and in fact were domesticated by pregnancy, their role came to be defined accordingly. Integral theorist Ken Wilber traces the “great, enduring, and nightmarish” task of all subsequent civilization as “the taming of testosterone.” Dr. William Sheldon, who in the early twentieth century invented the types of human characterization in physiognomic terms, said something similar, and Aldous Huxley, applying Sheldon’s terminology, remarked that civilization may be defined as a complex of religious, legal, and educational devices for preventing extreme somatotonics (in Sheldon’s language, men of aggressive temperment and muscular physique) from doing too much mischief and for directing their irrepressible energies into socially desirable channels.
Foraging was replaced by primitive agriculture, which was carried on largely through simple tools like hoes and sickles that could be handled by pregnant women, involving them more in the actual productive process of the economy. The clearest sign of an adjustment in women’s status from the move to primitive agriculture is the springing up all over the Semitic world of female deities. But this was not to last, as agriculture advanced to more manual forms (plowing and so on) that required the male mesomorphic physique. Again, the male’s muscle came to vitalize the productive process of the economy and women were once again required to shelter and nurture slender builds and engage in less taxing domestic work. Wilber emphasizes that agrarian societies have the most “sexually polarized structure of any known societal type.” And the consequence on religion is predictable, for when men become the sole producers of food, the deities will be predominantly male once more. In fact, this general paradigm was the unbreakable norm until only recently in human history, when gender roles would shift once again in the Industrial Revolution, which put mechanized forms of labor to work instead of actual people. Men, and women too, could now be trained to operate machinery, and the grit of direct production was no longer theirs; alienation and the drudgery of labor would hereafter be once removed from actual production. Since male form and strength were no longer crucial factors in production, the gender roles could experience a great and sweeping change yet again. Thus began the whole era of the division of labor. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792.
More could be said about these grand phases of human history, but the point of taking this telescopic view is to underscore the transformations in gender roles that inevitably result from every reorienting of the economic system. The gender roles, and what is acceptable for a man and a woman to do and to feel, are historically conditioned categories in ways that many other seemingly durable categories are; they aren’t unalterable givens to which we must acquiesce. Be that as it may, we still see people encumbered with the mentality of an agrarian phase of development, and we see them both inside and outside the religious centers of culture, emphasizing masculinity as well as male dominance and virility, perpetuating the subjection of women and, its anthropological concomitant, the discrimination of homosexuals. Although in the Western industrialized countries the laws against homosexuals have changed and continue to change, professional moralists remain steadfast in their need to restrict homosexuals from having equal marriage rights.
Every epoch has its stalwarts, and the members of every successive epoch look on them as exemplars of naiveté and ignorance. Scriptural reasons have been advanced against every kind of moral progress. Powerful and influential preachers decried universal suffrage in England, for hadn’t God put the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate? Voices rambled against women having the vote because, after all, aren’t women identified with their husbands, and isn’t the husband the head of every woman as Christ is head of the Church? The slave trade, too, had its rich tradition of biblical apologetics. Indeed, the plasticity of biblical interpretation is such that almost any viewpoint can be at once defended or opposed. It strikes a moral conservative intrinsically wrong to sanction the union of two men, or two women, in the bond of marriage. So it struck the nineteenth-century ecclesiastic as wrong to accord women a say in the government of the nation’s affairs, or the eighteenth-century parson to accept that landless peasants had some dignity worth preserving by suffrage. And these arguments were likely as fervent as the feelings expressed now against same-sex unions. Yet life goes on, mentality dissolves, and new scriptural explanations are offered so that scriptural faith may adjust to human needs. Sooner or later those who try to fit people to creeds have to make way for those who would prefer to fit creeds to people. “The Sabbath was made for man,” we are told (Mark 2:27). Conservatives would put palisades around that remark and hem it in as much as possible. I would prefer to feel its full irreverent and revolutionary force.
The Bible, transmitted in some form or another, has been sincerely subscribed to over twenty centuries, and think what incalculably vast changes—social, technological, and moral—have occurred in this span of time. Think, moreover, what great diversity of moral opinion has been entertained, all the while with some religious psychology firmly in place and the Bible remaining the same. The civilized world bears little resemblance in its customs and manners to the civilized world of twenty centuries ago, and—this is the real point—nearly all the intervening changes have been either countenanced or confuted in an almost alternating rhythm of consensus by the priestly authority of the day. First usury was perverse, then acceptable and necessary. First simony (the selling of pardons or appointments) was unscriptural, then the sanctioned business of the Church, then finally unscriptural again. And of course, divorce was once impossible, then permitted. Today’s evangelicals dance, listen to popular music, partake in public amusements and diversions, and attend the theater, even though on biblical authority these activities were strenuously denounced and even outlawed. And so on.
Amid all the vacillations of the Christian era, there exists an inclining scope of moral understanding. And though the rise is often scarcely perceptible, and not always uniformly continuous, it is very definitely present—perhaps humanity’s finest achievement, as fragile as it is wondrous. At every point on the incline are those who resist moral progress, who see such moral disputes as the defining struggles of their time, and who cite scriptures or religious authority to make their case. It follows almost instantly that today’s homophobic moralists will be tomorrow’s Confederate slave-traders; in fact it verges on being a necessary law.
The religious scriptures forbidding homosexuality were written in what was still a highly rustic milieu. Therefore they ought to have no hold on the present, at least as regards sexuality. When there is, in Bertrand Russell’s famous words, “a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men,” little in the way of moral progress can be achieved. Opposition to homosexuality, in whatever form it appears, indicates not so much a lower intelligence in the individual but participation in a consensus of opinion which represents a lower order of intelligence attained by civilized man. Let’s hope a wiser, kinder, and more humane consensus will prevail.