February 25, 2004
That issue that won't go away

Last week at Bible study, the pastor told us his bishop wanted him to find out his congregation's opinions on homosexuality. The ELCA's leadership is having some sort of vote on it next year, so they want the churches to decide on their positions. Although the first Lutheran church I visited advertised that it was Reconciling in Christ, this one has never brought up the subject. And my pastor admitted it made him uncomfortable; he said half-jokingly his first reaction to the bishop was, "Lutherans don't talk about sex!"

My leanings have always been in favor of gay people here, but when I've blogged about this I've expressed enough ambivalence to get some pro-gay persons annoyed at me. I think there's more than one reason for that, and I may go into it more later. But the whole thing seems so murky to begin with, it amazes me how folks on one side or the other can act like it's all so simple and clear. To me, the Biblical references to homosexuality are highly ambiguous, and the natural-law arguments always seemed to be based on a highly selective version of nature (it's God's will if we like it, it's fallen if we don't).

On the other hand, I know that the pro-gay side has no knockout argument to make. Casting doubt on Bible quotes doesn't make an affirmative case that God is OK with this. Pointing out the inadequacies of the Bible in general as a guide to sexual mores -- as Allen did again today -- only seems to inch us in a manichean direction where sex and spiritual matters are irrevocably separate. Apart from the fact that that doesn't seem very Christian, it leaves open the question: what do we base our understanding of human sexuality on?

A lot of people, both Christian and non, have called upon science for this. Genetics has become of special interest lately, but a lot of it also calls on my old field, psychology. And I've been amazed, frankly, at how confident some people are in the notion that psychology has explained these mysteries of the mind. A while ago on another blog -- I think it was The Right Christians again but I can't find it, so maybe I misremember -- the host reprinted approvingly an email that lamented how Lutherans had always been behind the times with psychology, from Freud up to the present day, so it's time to get with the program. If I remember right, this came up specifically in regard to homosexuality.

It's a little odd to call on psychology for support when homosexuality was officially considered a mental disorder up till the 1970s. But more broadly, it makes the discipline sound like it's on a much more monolithic march of progress than it's actually been on. Back on my old blog I linked to an article explaining the difference between psychology and psychotherapy, a distinction still lost on most people. Both disciplines, but especially the latter, have long been divided into competing factions that have spent a lot of time debunking each other.

I don't say this to knock psychology as a concept. It's just that it's a very young science. There's a whole lot of research that hasn't been done. And probably most new sciences start out with factions organized around charismatic personalities more than around evidence, like Aristotle expounding on physics all those eons ago. But psych in the popular mind, I think, has had an especially hard time getting out from under its biggest charismatic personality, Sigmund Freud.

Freud was not a scientist. His evidence, such as it was, all came from his therapeutic experience with patients, and when I and my fellow psych students read his accounts of how he railroaded them we were almost universally pissed off. But his hold on the popular imagination won't let up, and it's remarkable how both sides of the homosexuality debate have used him.

Freud believed that people are not born with a sexual orientation per se; we start out "polymorphously perverse," able to form a sexual attachment to just about anything. As with practically everything, he believed homosexuality was formed early in life by the family psychodrama; in the case of male homosexuals, a distant father and a suffocating mother. This explanation has been taken to by modern "reparative therapists" of the Christian right, such as Ex-Gay Watch documents.

There are so many ironies with the Christian right using Freud, it's hard to count them. Freud was a Jew and an atheist who believed that Western religion came from unresolved father issues. He wrote a book arguing that Moses ripped off monotheism from the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. But more to the point, Freud didn't think that homosexuality was really reversible, or especially harmful.

Which is why, perhaps, the other end of the spectrum is also using Freud. Recently I came across queer theology (via The Revealer), which doesn't cite Freud specifically but his fingerprints are all over it. You can see it in the tendency to see libido behind everything -- every expression of love, passion or desire is "really" about sex -- as well as a sort of hydraulic view of the sex drive:

"Paul was hung up about sex," Goss said. "He had a problem with male figures, and yet he had all these young men like Timothy hanging around him. Paul's experience was erotic. ... He said: 'It's no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.' That's an experience of communion. He took all his erotic energy, and probably fears about male sexuality, and channeled it into an erotic relationship with Christ."

Even some of the pro-gay people the article cites have a problem with this eroticization of everything, and I think they have a point. Freud drew on a crude 19th-century Darwinism that not only boils humans down to the animal, but to the physical. The body is hardly a temple of God in Freud's thinking; it's more of a machine powered by base drives.

Anyway, I'm talking about extremes here; most people aren't into reparative therapy or into queer theology. But it shows how little in this subject can be objectively proven. Ultimately, our evidence regarding sexual orientation is actually a lot like our evidence regarding religion: the lived experience, the testimony of millions of people on what it's like to live inside their own skins. Given the cacophony of voices on both subjects, it boils down to: whom do you trust?

The best approach, I think, is not to try to fit people into whatever your preconceived paradigm is. Recently Mike A. gave a wonderfully humane response to a man who was wondering about his sexual orientation in middle age:

Beyond current science, there is a problem: There is no one meaning of "homosexual." Different people are attracted to the same gender to a differing degree, and possibly/probably for different reasons.

What that means is, even though you are attracted to other men, you can still choose how to live your life, depending on how strong the attractions are and whether they drive you in healthy or unhealthy directions...

Greg, while I often disagree with "ex-gays" and believe their programs are ineffective, I will borrow one bit of their advice here. Remember that, first and foremost, you are "Greg," not heterosexual or bisexual or homosexual. Just Greg. And whatever your attractions are, you are free to decide how best to manage them.

Posted by Camassia at February 25, 2004 03:25 PM | TrackBack

The thing that I always come back to on this is that if this issue had been of even moderate importance to Christ, it seems like he would have brought it up at some point. All this crap about who sleeps where and who puts what in whom seem clearly to fall on the side of worldly matters that can be duly rendered unto Caesar--remember when they asked him about marriages in Heaven and Jesus told them that they had no idea what they were talking about? He also said that it's what comes out of a person's mouth that makes him unclean, not what goes into it. Read that last bit however you like in the current context.

To me, the matter is so irrelevant to the Christian life, and the NT reference so fleeting, that I can't see a clear case for saying anything at all about the issue from a New Testament perspective except that Paul thought man-on-man was yucky. But Paul was a Pharisee, and he probably thought shellfish were an abomination, too. So unless the Christian right is determined to wage a war against Long John Silvers, I wish they'd just shut up about it and leave the judging to God, or at least explain what their rationale is for which parts of the Torah they keep and which ones they dispose of.

Posted by: Matthias on February 26, 2004 03:25 PM

Thanks for the compliment about my message to the man struggling with sexual identification.

I think caution and sensitivity are warranted where faith, intimate relationships and sexuality are concerned. These are matters that, for many people, touch on the human soul.

Regardless of sexual orientation, sexuality for some people is divorced from the soul. But even when it is not, sometimes outside observers see someone else's sexuality, perceive it as profane, and presume to treat that individual in a profane manner. And profane treatment, ironically, may cause the split that the outsider presumed already existed.

Profanity occurs in a variety of forms. It can be mockery. It can be amateur psychoanalysis. It can be political partisanship. It can be bar-room cheerleading.

It's my prayer that specific ex-gay organizations will someday respect people as individual souls and empower people to make informed, prayerful, healthy decisions, instead of generalizing, pathologizing, profaning, and discriminating. (And I pray that scattered profane elements among the sexually liberated will do the same.)

Posted by: Mike A. on February 28, 2004 09:33 PM
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