Bad Religion

How Should Christianity Engage With Gays in a Post-Closet World?
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April 18 2012 2:39 PM

Bad Religion

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I may not like it, but I can’t claim gay relationships fit the Christian view of sexuality.

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Marchers hold signs thanking New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for legalizing same-sex marriage

Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images.

Will,

If the Christian view of homosexuality were just grounded in a single passage in Leviticus and a single passage in the Pauline epistles, then the kind of modern reinterpretation you’re suggesting would be—well, not easy, exactly, but relatively plausible. What I try to suggest in Bad Religion, though, is that the problem runs deeper than this. The Christian view of gay sex is bound up in the Christian view of straight sex, which is rooted in the entirety of the biblical narrative, from the creation story in Genesis down through Jesus’ words in the New Testament. It’s a narrative in which human sexuality has a clear teleology—the reunification of the two equal-but-different halves of humanity (“male and female he created them … therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh …”), and the begetting of children within a context that’s intended be a kind of microcosm of humanity as a whole.

This narrative of one-flesh complementarity explains why Christians have traditionally rejected both the sexual authoritarianism inherent in polygamy and the sexual individualism that’s become such a powerful force in our society today—and why they’ve refused to bless homosexual relationships as well. Now you’re right, I think, that we have a different and more subtle understanding of homosexuality than did many people in the early centuries A.D. We have good reason to believe that it’s more innate and less chosen, that it’s an orientation and an identity rather than just an expression of libertinism and lust. And the examples of stable gay couples all around us testify to the fact that homosexuality can be unitive and generous rather than purely individualistic.

These are powerful arguments for social tolerance and some form of legal accommodation, and they explain why the gay rights movement has made such swift and sweeping progress. But they do not in and of themselves prove that Christians have been mistaken in the way they have interpreted their scriptures and traditions on this question. Gay relationships may be unitive in some sense, but they are not unitive in the male-female, difference-reunited sense that the Biblical narrative strongly suggests that God intended sex to be. Gay people can bear and rear children, but they cannot bear and rear them in accordance with what the Biblical narrative suggests is God’s original intention for the reproduction of the human race. Homosexuality may be innate, but recall that one of the core doctrines of Christianity is that sin itself is innate—that our innermost being is in some sense broken and fallen and turned from God’s desires for us. What a traditional Christian morality asks of gay people seems impossibly difficult, but the Jesus of the New Testament asks the near impossible of people quite frequently.

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It’s true that Jesus himself does not specifically say anything about homosexuality. But neither does he revise the male-and-female model for sexuality; if anything, his teaching on divorce only strengthens it. He leaves plenty of room for alternative ways of life besides marriage—believers are urged to break family ties if necessary and even to become “eunuchs” for the sake of the kingdom of God, and there are suggestions that friendship rather than romance might be the highest Christian relationship. But he never even hints that there might a kind of “virtually normal” sexual alternative to the male-female paradigm.

Hence the struggle you discern in my own writings, which is a struggle playing itself across the whole of American Christianity. Like many Christians—younger Christians, especially—I have strong personal reasons for wanting to remove any hint of condemnation from my faith’s view of gay sex. But I also want to be faithful to a tradition that I genuinely believe represents a divine incursion into the human plane, and a revelation of God’s intentions for mankind. Christian orthodoxy does not require a blind Biblical literalism, but it requires a respect for the authority of that revelation, and the intellectual honesty to recognize when it isn’t saying what we might like it to say. And for now, at least, I still think that the traditional interpretation of what Christians should believe about sex has the better of the argument. And if I’m wrong—if Christian moral doctrine could develop on this question without betraying the core of the faith—then we’re waiting for an intellectual or theological breakthrough that hasn’t happened yet.

So how should Christianity engage with homosexuality in a post-closet age? I’m not sure. My only definite answer is that orthodox Christians need to extend an enormous amount of charity and understanding on this issue—toward gay Christians struggling to live up to the traditional teaching, toward the many believers (gay and straight) who have become convinced that the traditional teaching simply has to change, and to the many Americans for whom this issue has become a reason to reject Christianity entirely.

Ross

Ross Douthat is the author ofGrand New Partyand a blogger for the Atlantic.

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