Homophobia with a Cuddle! Or, a Polemic against Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Leviticus 18.22)

Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die (Romans 1.26-32)

There is a simple issue here: why are mainstream scholarly views, which might be deemed bigoted views, mainstream?

N.T. Wright, whose appointment at St Andrews caused a minor media stir because of his ‘creative’ views on homosexuality related issues (see discussion and links here and here), has been well known for his ‘distinctive’  take on homosexuality (e.g. here), including apparently comparing (somehow) the elevation of Gene Robinson to the Bush’s invasion of Iraq. I still remember loitering at the British NT Conference when he gave his now infamous defence of his remarkably optimistic translation of the bit of 1 Cor. 6.9 as follows: ‘…practising homosexuals of whichever sort…’ Given that Wright is big on accepting the biblical witness he obviously believes this to be correct. Perhaps with a polemic against the arrogance of the Enlightenment, I don’t know.

Recently, Mike Bird argued this:

Many today will argue that homosexuality is natural because it is programmed into people’s genetic make-up and that gay dolphins and gay penguins somehow legitimate homosexual behavior for homosapiens. In all of these appeals to nature we must be cognizant of the fact that “nature” is a culturally constructed and linguistically freighted entity; not a self-evident and universal norm known immediately to all. What is more, we should also heed various logical fallacies in applying nature to ethics. First, the deontic fallacy in that it is logically impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is,” so that the gayness or straightness of dolphins proves only that dolphins have certain sexual habits; it does not thereby condemn or legitimate human gayness or straightness. Second, the naturalistic fallacy entails that the qualities of “right” and “wrong” are themselves non-natural entities and are derived from other beliefs, and not deduced from observing empirical phenomena. In other words, it is impossible to derive an ethical prescription from a mere description of natural processes.

If we take Rom 1:26-28, 1 Cor 7:1-40, 11:1-16 together, then it is clear that sexuality was intrinsic to human bodily existence and that heterosexuality was part of the divinely created order for humanity. Departures from the norm of God’s creation represent defiance against the Creator and foreshadow the divine wrath soon to follow. To suppress the truth about the one God who made the heavens and the earth invariably leads to a rejection of God’s design for sex as a means of partnership and procreation between men and women. Paul’s appeal to nature is not based on the pantheism and natural law theory of Stoic philosophy, but rests squarely in his creational monotheism. Richard Hays puts it well: “The understanding of ‘nature’ in this conventional language does not rest on an empirical observation of what actually exists; instead, it appeals to an intuitive conception of what ought to be, of the world as designed by God. Those who indulge in sexual practices para physin are defying the creator and demonstrating their own alienation from him.”

Mike Bird also adds: ‘Yet for those who are forced to etch out a pre-industrial living in the Amazonian rainforest, they may regard “nature” as an enemy of one’s mortal existence and something that is savage as it is inescapable.’

But I just want to note this in passing: ‘Departures from the norm of God’s creation represent defiance against the Creator and foreshadow the divine wrath soon to follow. To suppress the truth about the one God who made the heavens and the earth invariably leads to a rejection of God’s design for sex as a means of partnership and procreation between men and women.’ I’m not a churchman myself, nor theologically inclined, but I understand that some people don’t believe in the truth about the one God who made the heavens and the earth but have not (presumably ‘yet’) gone around lying with members of the same sex as they should not and are also homophobic. But that’s another issue.

Ben Witherington recently contributed me losing seven minutes of my life I will never see again (I largely blame myself, don’t worry). If you want to lose seven minutes of your life learning about homosexuality, eunuchs and disliking the sin and not the sinner, then please watch this video.

And the doyen of the homosexuality debate on the homophobic (see below) side is Robert Gagnon. If you want to see his hardcore views on homosexuality visit his bizarre site. Maybe it is my Enlightenment influenced arrogance and sheltered upbringing coming through, but I found the section on the email correspondence one of the weirdest things I have ever read. But you might enjoy gems like this:

The consequences of your promotion of homosexual activity are an unnatural dishonoring of the integrity of maleness and femaleness by treating these as only half intact for one’s own sex; an increase in the negative side-effects that accompany homosexual activity (including STIs but also no decrease in rates of suicide ideation)…

You may be in need of structural affirmation as a male but you are not in need of structural supplementation. You are not sexually completed by another male.

I’m saying this out of love for you. You do yourself a disservice by relating to other males as though you were their sexual complement. The fact that you had a long-lasting relationship is like congratulating an incestuous union between consenting adults for lasting 30 years. It’s not a triumph but a long-lasting enterprise of sin and mutual dishonor. This is not to say that same-sex friendships are not a good thing. They are something wonderful. But when you introduce sex into the equation then you dishonor yourself by acting as if you are a half male.

As with Wright, and obviously Gagnon and Witherington, I’m going to assume the above scholars (including Bird and Hays) really believe their exegesis applies to contemporary life. I also appreciate the distinction between hating the sin and not the sinner that goes on in these debates but there is clearly need for a word to cover these ideas about hating the sin, or the same sex ‘practising’ (and presumably those who have had plenty of practice too) relationships. I’m going to go for the following word: ‘homophobic’. If you prefer ‘x’ (or whatever) that’s fine too but homophobic works for me [using this common definition to clear up any misunderstanding: ‘homophobia includes both physical violence and an attitude that sees homosexuality as an unfortunate condition that should not be practised’]

And, to show that I’m nice and tolerant too, I’m not saying anyone should have their voice, writing or anything banned. Everyone can give homophobic arguments in an academic or public setting as much as anyone else, as much as other right wing sentiments are in public settings and so on (you stop one group then who’s next…?). Maybe we should listen to the Rev Ross Kennedy who takes up the mantle of thinking and engaging and so on in defending Wright (or at least this is how he is quoted):

But the Rev Ross Kennedy, a member of the Episcopal Church’s conservative wing, felt Holdsworth’s remarks were unduly harsh. The associate minister at Dunfermline’s Holy Trinity Church said: “It just goes to show that liberal does not necessarily mean tolerant. “Some of us might disagree with aspects of Bishop Wright’s ethical and theological opinions, but he might make us think and re-evaluate our own views and that can never be a bad thing.”

It sounds lovely and intellectual at that general level. Yet I wonder what sort of discussion it would take for me to ‘think and re-evaluate’ my views and (say) start thinking that men shagging men might just mean they really do deserve death? Or maybe I should stay with my view (presumably my Enlightenment influenced arrogance?) that I am completely indifferent?

So what was the point in all that? Well, I think all the above have something in common: they are mainstream, well-established, academic biblical scholars. Moreover, academic biblical studies has normalised their views (even if they are ‘controversial’) and they use the façade not only of ‘reasonable’, ‘irenic’ debate but also dress it up in all that academic language, in academic debates, academic journals, academic publications (forget ‘sin not the sinner’ how about ‘ontological’ versus ‘practising’…that’s philosophy mate!). I don’t get involved in these debates normally because it seems to me that it the same (tricky) question of dealing with the far right. But unlike the far right and overt far right sentiments, the homophobic/right wing  view is firmly mainstream in academic biblical studies. I think it speaks volumes about the nature and history of the academic discipline of biblical studies that homophobia, or this aspect of far right thinking, is mainstream.

And I think wonder if some of us might want to ditch the language that these people are somehow ‘brave’ (as one commenter suggested) for espousing ‘controversial’ or ‘unpopular’ (read: homophobic) views. Gagnon claims: ‘There are numerous venues today, including hiring in our guild, where discrimination is suffered not by homosexuals but by those who respectfully and compassionately write against supporting cultural incentives for homoerotic activity.’ Gagnon works in a theological seminary and there are lots of theological seminaries in the academy. Now, do they ever discriminate…? And respectfully and compassionately writing against supporting cultural incentives for homoerotic activity seems to me to be (ideally) on the same level as writing respectfully and compassionately writing against supporting cultural incentives for (say) socks or table cloths: i.e. weird.

And the above people are known people in the academic discipline of biblical studies, some of them very senior figures, one of them once holding a very senior church office with some political influence, all of them having a huge amount of support from likeminded people in the discipline. Gagnon must be very clever and very important because he even responds to criticisms from Eric Thurman (then a PhD student, or, in the words of Gagnon, ‘a doctoral student who is a disciple of the radical postmodernist and deconstructionist New Testament scholar, Stephen Moore’) by saying, ‘Thurman is only a doctoral student and so some of his deficiencies as a reviewer perhaps can be attributed to his inexperience as a scholar it is my hope that Mr. Thurman will grow in maturity of argumentation as he progresses in his academic career.’ That’s you told student!

You’ll notice that there is no exegesis here. This isn’t about exegesis. The biblical texts may very well be what we’d call homophobic. The issue here is that homophobia is mainstream in academic biblical studies and the hate towards ‘practising’ behaviour  (I’m guessing that means shagging or related ‘practices’ but I defer to greater authorities on the things which homosexuals get up to) is patched over with fluffiness, love and academic credibility.

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16 responses to “Homophobia with a Cuddle! Or, a Polemic against Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

  1. Bird: “In other words, it is impossible to derive an ethical prescription from a mere description of natural processes.

    If we take Rom 1:26-28, 1 Cor 7:1-40, 11:1-16 together, then it is clear that sexuality was intrinsic to human bodily existence and that heterosexuality was part of the divinely created order for humanity.”

    —————

    The disjunction between these two statements–side by side in Bird’s argument–seems to be the crux to me. According to this, ethics are beyond mere humans to produce philosophically, even if they are theistically inclined. Humanity needs written texts inspired by God–and so apparently ‘unnatural’ in form and interpretation–to be able to talk ethically about sexuality. I can see that some theologians claim this; I still recall Michael Banner insisting that his Barthian christology was the (negative) answer to the painful realities surounding the euthanasia question. But I can’t see any legitimate philosopher agreeing that he/she is so neutered that they can’t even create a system of ethics. Self-evidently, the world’s major cultures have happily created ethical systems without any of the texts that Bird quotes.

    What he is left with, it seems to me, is a case of special pleading. His texts somehow allow him to bypass the hard work of thinking philosophically about ethics and reality, allow him to bypass the fact of intersex, and the–I am going to say it–fact of homosexuality too. If nothing real or natural–what is–can matter to humanity ethically, then the claim to possess the key to a utopian versin of the present–what should be–becomes the ultimate power play. And with that conclusion, I would suggest leaving these guys to play with their little toys, as the world leaves them behind and goes its own way. They may insist that that means a choice to head towards Sodom, but I can’t see their arguments leading to a large scale embracing of anti-homosexual practice. Fact is, the question of “what should be” is answered differently by many Christians, and for every evangelical who is interested in corralling sex properly, there is probably a Christian interested in issues of justice and love. And if they can’t even convince their own flock about their message, maybe, just maybe they should ask themselves whether they really do have it right. As academics, should they really just espouse this stuff without questioning it? As human beings, should they really present their potential in such limited and desperate ways? And as Christians, should they really present their God as so wildly homophobic? I guess the answer is that they think they should do all three. It is no wonder then that theology and biblical studies with it are regarded with such deep suspicion by much of the academy.

    Very sad.

  2. Good comments, James and John.

    The special pleading which you mentioned, John, is so bad, somebody who doesn’t know the scene of mainstream biblical studies might have thought that the author was speaking firmly tongue-in-cheek (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not alluding to any “unnatural” act).

    This special pleading goes even further: if I follow Bird’s train of thought, the idea of “nature” which Greek, Roman, and (“uninspired”) Jewish literature describes would be “very much constructed on the basis of a particular cultural framework”. Which is right. But when Paul makes very much the same appeal to “nature”, Bird’s critical ability to discern a cultural construct apparently deserts him. Bird does not ask any critical questions about Paul’s pronouncements on nature. For Bird, once Paul has spoken, he must be defended, not criticised. Paul’s words about the topic of “nature” – no matter how many parallels with contemporary Greek and Roman writers Bird adduces – cannot ever be treated as a social construct. At this point, criticism is abandoned, “nature” is absolutized into “the created order of things designed and put into effect by God and which showcases God’s very own glory”, and the question of the how Paul’s words were socially constructed is ruled out of court.

    Bird’s reluctance to penetrate beyond the surface or rim of the question of the social construction of Paul’s categories – in stark contrast to his willingness to plunge hands and feet into the social constructedness of Greek and Roman writers – marks the very failure of any critical project he purports to be undertaking. But it is worse than that: it is criticism used tendentiously, and self-consciously so, and so the abuse of scholarship for certain pre-established claims. (Yeah, yeah, we all do it to some extent, I know we all have presuppositions, but it’s one thing to be aware that you have some dirt on your person that you can’t see, another thing entirely to wallow in the mud like a pig in shit.) And finally, we get, in Bird’s well-cited facade of a scholarly argument, the too-familiar slide from argument supporting a created order to the bare affirmation of the reality of God’s created order. It is not that “Paul’s arguments concerning God’s created order are right, and may be distinguished from his contemporaries, because [of x, y, z in his argument]”, but that “Paul is right because, in fact, what he is saying is true: God did make the created order”. If you want to have that conversation, fine, but keep it in your Southern Baptist Seminaries and Sunday Schools; it has no place in academia.

    Interestingly, one of the passages which Bird cites in favour of interpreting Paul as claiming “that sexuality was intrinsic to human bodily existence and that heterosexuality was part of the divinely created order for humanity” is 1 Corinthians 11.1-16. And what is Paul’s great argument here? What does Paul say that makes him an ancient writer worth reading – nay, an ancient writer who transcends social constructions? Here it is, verse 14:

    “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him?”

    Really? Do we just know that long hair on a man is just obviously wrong – something deep down in our gut, and not Paul’s social upbringing and prejudices, tells us this? And, to top it off, does this also reveal the created order of God? And to ask the obvious question: shouldn’t we treat Paul’s nonsense about the “unnaturalness” men with long hair as having about the same value as his nonsense about “unnatural desires” in Romans 1?

    By effectively discarding the possibility that Paul is limited by his social upbringing, adopting some thorougly convoluted reasoning in order to do so, and falsely and prejudicially ascribing to nature (and God) what should critically be ascribed to social convention, I guess Bird, Witherington, Gagnon, and co won’t ever have to address that last critical question.

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  4. There are NT scholars in the academy who believe that homosexuality is a sin because the Bible says it is, and that makes them homophobic? How? Christians also believe that premarital sex is wrong, does that make them genophobic, too? In short, the word “homophobic” is being mis-applied.

    • You pointed out that ‘There are NT scholars in the academy who believe that homosexuality is a sin because the Bible says it is, and that makes them homophobic? How?’
      Well, ‘because the Bible says it is’ it isn’t the strongest argument against homosexuality, it isn’t really a very positive view of homosexuality held by these scholars, and there is, persumably, a strong dislike of something ‘homosexual’ they would call a ‘sin’ and they ought to stop it. That sounds a fairly negative view to me. Believe what you want and call it what you will (‘homophobia’ works well in terms of what is commonly perceived to be homophobia) but is isn’t a very positive view is it…? It is only homophilia in a very limited sense.

      Ok, even accepting the constraints and constructed nature of language, do you think it is too much to suggest that the following from Gagnon (I’m repeating this cos it is on my cut and paste) might be deemed homophobic (the link is above)?
      You do yourself a disservice by relating to other males as though you were their sexual complement. The fact that you had a long-lasting relationship is like congratulating an incestuous union between consenting adults for lasting 30 years. It’s not a triumph but a long-lasting enterprise of sin and mutual dishonor…But when you introduce sex into the equation then you dishonor yourself by acting as if you are a half male.

      • joshuawooden

        “[D]o you think it is too much to suggest that the following from Gagnon (I’m repeating this cos it is on my cut and paste) might be deemed homophobic (the link is above)?”

        That’s exactly the problem I’m pointing out – the problem of definition. What constitutes homophobia – how do you define it?

        Yes, saying that homosexuality is a sin is a negative view. Christians believe it’s wrong – that’s obvious. So the response by Gagnon above isn’t exactly surprising. But in using the word homophobia, you are, in my mind, associating men like this with men like the “God Hates Fags” movement, or people who commit hate crimes against homosexuals simply because they’re homosexual. If you’re not, then either use a different word, or define it the way you want others to understand it.

        So, is it too much to suggest that it MIGHT be deemed homophobic? No, not really, but that depends on what EXACTLY you mean when you say the word homophobic and what you are implying when you associate these men with that word.

      • Well, what if we went for a simple defintion of physical violence rather than including attitudes that see homosexuality as an unfortunate (to put it mildly) condition that should not be practised then Gagnon et al would not be. But if we went for an equally simple definition (as I am assuming) of both physical violence and an attitude that sees homosexuality as an unfortunate condition that should not be practised then Gagnon et al are. Certainly there are differences between physical violence and condemning practices and they can be flagged up but the more general definition works perfectly well.

      • joshuawooden

        I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I am a member of my campus’s gay/straight alliance, and believe homophobia should be recognized and counter-acted (and frankly, I see this more within the context of the military, coming from a military family, then the church). But I just don’t get what the point of calling out alleged homophobes does, other than draw the battle lines, when most Christians are very uneasy about homosexuality being a sin precisely because they have friends and family that are GLBTQ. They hold that’s it’s wrong, but I wouldn’t say they’re hateful, and it would appear that the very act of saying that homosexuality is a sin makes someone homophobic.

        Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but if I am, I I would like to ask: what gives? Do you think these scholars should be fired from their respective institutions for discrimination?

      • I would emphatically state that no one get fired for these beliefs. I have problems with all sorts of beliefs, aspects of liberalism, and so calling people out for an ideological position is what this is all about. I’m not really talking about the church or the problematic issues with families (which I imagine could have all sorts of issues) as such but rather academic biblical studies. I’m arguing that high profile people are saying various things which would ordinarily be deemed homophobic and they are given such a platform (with an audience) because the discipline has so many sympathetic participants. This has meant it is a mainstream position and a deeply embedded one with more practical ramifications. I think such scholars should be criticised for having an easy ride on a view which is potentially damaging for colleagues who do not fit the view of sexuality and I think such scholars should be shown that this is not quite the tolerant language it is being portrayed as. Different situations (church, campus, military, home etc) certainly call for different tactics but I think there is something to be gained from challenging the dominance of this particular position in academia. Not earth shattering but something.

  5. Nice comments from James, John, and especially Deane. I offered a few thoughts here, including what people have in mind by the term homophobia.

    And yes, James, that’s seven minutes of my life gone forever. 🙂

  6. “Christians believe it’s wrong – that’s obvious.”

    Sorry to be picky, Joshua, but that statement is simply not true. Many Christians don’t find it wrong at all (e.g. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17796511).

  7. Today’s letter to the Times by numerous senior churchmen affirming gay marriage.

    http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/archives/005468.html

    Gagnon, Bird, Wright et al do not speak for all Christians. We shouldn’t ever let them forget it.

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