Note, this post is Part 5 in a series (which starts HERE) on my Christian defense of LGB relationships and sex, however it is my hope that this piece in particular can also stand alone as a response to what I believe is the larger impetus behind much of the Evangelical (and Roman Catholic) church's rejection of LGB sex.
For my series in defense of the identities of transgender folk click HERE
It is fascinating to me that this is what much of the discussion over the sex lives of LGB folk so often seems to come down to. In the case of most non academic and theological types the discussion can get there pretty quickly, when it comes to discussions with people who do focus on academic and theological arguments, it can take a little while but if you stick around long enough, work through the "clobber passages", the exegetical discussion, and the examination of hermeneutical principles(1) you will get to this point eventually as well, albeit with a significantly different emphasis."It's just unnatural."
In the case of the non academic "regular person" the phrase "unnatural" seems to mean basically something that is "weird and makes me uncomfortable". It isn't particularly complicated, a straightforward smattering of socially acquired homophobia or unease with deviations from what the person thinks of as "the norm". That doesn't justify it—it is still deadly to the LGBT folks who regularly suffer hate crimes and discrimination here and around the world—it just accounts for it. However, in the mouth of an academic or theologian, the phrase unnatural or maybe counter to natural law means something very different and actually forms the foundation on which all of the other interpretations of the bible and exegetical conclusions often turn out to have been built. It all goes back to "Natural Law", Thomas Aquinas, and Aristotle.
Feel free to read past this is you are familiar with Aristotelian and Thomist theories of Natural Law and sexual ethics.
I wanted to point out the separate ways the term natural is used when talking about LGB (and T) folks in order to say that I am not going to be talking about the non academic or theological use of the term—that use is about feelings and what people are exposed to so the proper response doesn't have a lot to do with formal arguments, it has a lot more to do with experience and actively engaging with people. What I want to focus on in this piece, is the argument that academics, theologians, and philosophers are making when they say that homosexuality is unnatural or that it is contrary to natural law(2).
Natural Law Theory is a way of thinking that dates back to the famous Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas who, in turn, built much of his thinking about this subject on the work of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In brief, natural law theory argues that we can know how a person ought to behave based on our knowledge of what humans exist for. In pretty much the same way that a good knife is a knife that cuts well, and a good light bulb is one that provides illumination, a good human is one who humans well. The theory that Aristotle put forward starts by asking why we do things generally and then rather elegantly moves to the observation that if we keep asking "but why do you do that?" we end up working our way to the answer "in order to flourish (3)". From there Aristotle wants to ask what flourishing looks like for a human person and his conclusion is that flourishing for humans means something like "doing human-specific things as well as possible".
For Aristotle, the method you should use to figure out the particular flourishing of a being is to examine what characteristics or powers are unique to that being. So living things live (in contrast to inorganic things) and so to flourish as a living thing is to live; further, animals are distinct from plants in that they can move on their own, so moving well is part of flourishing for animals; skipping a bunch of stages here, humans are the reasoning animals, so for humans flourishing means reasoning well. With that said, reasoning for Aristotle could (if we are generous) include what we think of as emotion and relationship (4). Ultimately then, for Aristotle Natural Law would say that a person ought to do those things which are particular to them as well as they can without violating the doing of things that are particular to their other, broader, identities (human, mammal, animal, living-thing, existing-thing).
But when most Western Christian people talk about Natural Law they are generally talking about the version of the theory that St. Thomas Aquinas adapted from Aristotle, or at least they think they are. St. Thomas was willing to look to more sources that merely reason and his environment when it came to determining what a thing (or person) is for. For Aquinas the Bible, and Church tradition also get a voice (5). So when Aquinas thought about human sexuality, he thought about it in terms of its purpose—at least he sort of did. If we back out a little, Aquinas (following Aristotle and the general attitude of the church in his day) understood sex and sexual arousal to be an unfortunate development. Aristotle criticized sexual attraction and sexual intercourse for interfering with clear thinking. Aquinas focuses mostly on this same aspect of it when he categorizes sex as an activity (and a drive) which can be put to some good uses, and is not therefore wholly bad, but ultimately comes up short in comparison to total celibacy. Sex for him isn't quite evil but is a compromised sort of good, specifically it is something which can only be made good when it is put to the right uses within the right context. (6)
It is worth taking a minute to notice that this view is in pretty stark contrast to the way most western Protestants (conservative or otherwise) tend to have taught about sex. In western Protestantism, sex is generally thought to be fundamentally good, but subject to being used wrongly. The results are similar (both groups conclude that sex should only take place within marriage) but the orientations towards it are mirror images. Where Aquinas sees sex as a redeemable thing which is otherwise unfortunate, western Protestants have historically seen sex an inherently good thing which can be corrupted by wrong use. It is important to keep this in mind when thinking about contemporary Evangelical use of Natural Law theory.
This image is brought to you as a reminder that LGB folks
can and do raise children
For Aquinas then, sex can be redeemed by putting it to two specifically good uses, both of which he thought supported the purposes of marriage. So of course, we need to look at what Aquinas thought was the purpose of marriage. In broad terms, Aquinas thought that marriage could be good if it served the purposes of providing a context for fully rearing children, and of providing other-serving-fidelity between the spouses (7). Correspondingly, sexual intercourse becomes a good, in Aquinas' thinking, when it serves the purpose of raising healthy children and of uniting spouses in intimate fidelity. The procreation mandate is "according to natural law" in Aquinas's view because it is good for humanity to extend as a macro level application of the fact that it is good for people to keep living (8). The intimate fidelity mandate is a little harder to for Aquinas to pin to any distinct natural law reasoning and Aquinas sort of punts to some circularity (sex is only good within marital fidelity and marital fidelity is good because it provides a context wherein sex can be good) but seems to be derived from the observation that sex does, in fact, help/cause partners to form a bond with one another. From there Aquinas argues that sex should be oriented towards bringing the spouses together as a couple and toward providing pleasure for one another. He sums this up with the word fides but to make sure it stays clear, I will use fidelity/intimacy.
In summary, Aquinas taught that in order for a given sex act to not be sinful it had to be oriented towards raising healthy children and towards increasing the fidelity/intimacy of the married couple.
Evangelical Culture-War Modifications to Natural Law Theory
Insofar as contemporary biblical scholars and theologians are referencing the sexual ethics of natural law they are referencing this. It is a rigorously Roman Catholic view of sexual ethics, closed to non-procreative sex acts, to all birth control, and to any sexual intercourse or expression outside of marriage(9). It is, quite notably, not a particularly western Protestant view of sexual ethics(10). In fact, most western Protestants (and most notably Evangelicals) have been accepting of birth control and of marriages wherein the couple chooses not to have children for between 50 and 90 years depending on the denomination. This move was facilitated theologically by two distinct steps: First, during the Protestant reformation, the reformers shifted from a view of sex as basically-bad-but-able-to-be-redeemed-by-marriage to the view that sex is basically-good-but-is-corrupted-when-it-happens-outside-of-marriage. This didn't change their view of birth control as such but it did position them to make the second shift during the middle of the 20th century (and if that seems recent, keep in mind that birth control wasn't really available in the US until 1938 and the pill didn't show up until 1960; in that context western Protestants were early adopters, not holdouts) when they justified the use of birth control on the theological grounds that sex was a good thing within marriage and served the fidelity/intimacy purpose.
This is actually a really big deal because Western Protestants on the whole have not held to Natural Law theory when it comes to sexual ethics (they have used other ethical models—predominantly variations on utilitarianism, Kantian deontological ethics, and divine command theory—to think about sexuality). It is hard to read their recent attempts to recover Natural Law Theory as anything but an after-the-fact desire to shore up their disapproval of same-sex marriage. Fundamentally, traditional Natural Law Theory sees sex as something which has to be justified whereas Protestants traditionally see sex as something to be celebrated.
|This is Al Mohler|
In reality, the Pill allowed a near-total abandonment of Christian sexual morality in the larger culture. Once the sex act was severed from the likelihood of childbearing, the traditional structure of sexual morality collapsed.or as he put it in his 2015 book/culture-war-manifesto We Cannot Be Silent (13)
In more recent years, many evangelicals have begun to reconsider the morality of birth control and contraception and, on the positives side, have come to affirm the unconditional goodness of the gift of children. Even when evangelicals do not accept the Catholic admonition that each and every act of marital sex must be equally open to the gift of children, at the very least, evangelicals must affirm that every marriage must be open to the gift of children and that , should pregnancy occur, it is to be seen as an unconditional gift rather than as an imposition. (emphasis in the original)He did not (and does not) try to shift fully to the Thomist Natural Law view that each and every sex act must be open to procreation but tries to carve out a position wherein the marriage itself is "open to procreation" in principle. I would submit that he has to land there because the broader protestant understanding of sex (that it is a good thing to be celebrated within marriage) doesn't really leave space for the full Natural Law approach—in fact I suspect that it would be something of a catastrophe for Southern Baptists if the people studying in their seminaries all read Thomas Aquinas. Mohler seems to be trying to tie Evangelical theologies of sex back to Natural Law without erasing the distinctions between Roman Catholic and Evangelical views of the subject. The problem is that this isn't a particularly coherent approach; Mohler and his fellow conservative evangelicals want to use a Thomist purpose based Natural Law approach to ethics without actually accepting all of the logical implications of that view. Instead they dismiss the full Thomist implications of Natural Law theory as "too Catholic" without providing an explanation of how they still support their modified position. Complex and detailed systems like Aquinas' Natural Law Theory can't be modified on a whim; any modifications have to be justified in a way that demonstrates how the overall modification still fits with (doesn't contradict) the theory as a whole. Conservative Evangelicals have not provided the necessary careful justification of their modifications and until they do, this appropriation of Natural Law should be treated as incoherent (14). As it stands, people in the Mohler position have to somehow argue either that procreation is the purpose of marriage but not of sex, or that marriage must be judged by how well it fulfills the purposes they assign it but that sex should not be held to this standard—either argument would seem to be a really big theological/philosophical lift and I don't see how they would/will manage.
In any case, my response to both of these positions (the Roman Catholic Thomist argument and the conservative Evangelical culture-war modification) is that they are wrong in shifting from the claim that "procreation is a purpose of marriage/sex" to the conclusion "procreation is an irreducible purpose of marriage/sex". In the first case, a defensible claim is being made. But that first statement simply isn't the same thing as the second. As someone who is reasonably fond of Natural Law theory on the whole, I don't have any problem with an ethical methodology which works to figure out what things are for and uses those conclusions to work on thinking about how those things should and shouldn't be employed, so I don't have a particular problem with saying that marriage/sex exists for the purpose of child rearing/procreation among other things. You see, both groups recognize that while procreation/child rearing is a purpose of marriage/sex, it is not the only purpose. Intimacy/fidelity (in the Roman Catholic version) or intimacy and mutual delight (in the Evangelical culture-war modification) are also recognized as a vital purpose of marriage/sex. That being the case, a given sex act, or a full marriage which serves to create or enhance intimacy/fidelity between spouses is fulfilling one of its purposes. Put another way, while it is true that procreation/child rearing is a purpose of sex/marriage, it is also true that intimacy, fidelity, and mutual delight is a purpose of sex/marriage. What is happening is that these theories are sneaking in an assumed premise, that things which have more than one purpose but do not fulfill all of them are sinful Or in other words, we need to apply this argument to the act of chewing in order to know whether or not bubblegum is sinful.
Now, we know that chewing exists for two purposes: chewing (more broadly mastication) exists as one stage in the digestion process, and chewing exists to bring out the taste and pleasure of food. So one purpose of chewing is the nourishment of the body. The second purpose of chewing is enjoyment of the good world God has made. Most examples of chewing that we voluntarily engage in are able to fulfill both of these purposes. We eat things that taste good. However there are some things we choose to chew which serve only the first purpose, they may even contravene the second purpose (kale for instance, nourishes the body but tastes bad). Other things we choose to chew fulfill the second purpose but not the first. This is where bubblegum comes in. Bubblegum does not serve to nourish the body at all (in fact our mothers will collectively remind us that moving it to further stages of digestion is a bad idea); it does, however, serve to provide taste and pleasure. If the Roman Catholic and Evangelical culture-war modification assumed premise—that it is sinful for a thing to fulfill only one of multiple purposes—is correct, then it must be sinful to chew bubblegum. And as this is ridiculous in the case of chewing bubblegum, it is also ridiculous in the case of sex and marriage.
If same-sex sex/marriage is able to fulfill the purpose of fidelity/intimacy and mutual delight, then same-sex sex/marriage is able to fulfill the purpose of marriage by the standards of Natural Law theory if they are consistently applied, the Christian who wants to object to them will have to find other grounds.
The Academic Evangelical Use of Natural
There is still another use of the term Natural in connection to arguments over LGB sex and relationships which I have seen employed by evangelical academics who are more theologically moderate than their conservative culture-war modification counterparts. While they use the phrase Natural Law and the term natural they don't seem to be referencing Aquinas or Aristotle but what they take to be Paul's understanding of natural.
There are two distinct problems with this view, and either would be fatal to the position. The first problem is that such a definition of natural is wildly anachronistic. It is the way a modern, post enlightenment person might use the word natural but it is not at all the way 1st century Greeks and Romans would have used the term phusis. C.S. Lewis has actually provided a careful etymological and philological analysis of the history and meaning of the term. He explains that in the first century, the most common usage of the term phusis was to talk about things developing in an un-interfered-with way. If something developed on its own, without being messed with by an outside influence, that meant it developed according to its phusis, its nature. We actually still use the term nature this way when we say that a particular food is natural. We mean that the food in question wasn't altered by humans.
The second problem with the "moderate" evangelical usage of natural is that it doesn't reflect the way Paul actually uses the term in Romans 1. Paul is clearly using unnatural to denote "interfered with" and not "contrary to anatomical design" in Romans 1 since he is specifically talking about behaviors people engage in as the result of a cause, namely denying God. In fact, the example he gives as unnatural in verse 26 is a first example of the full list which follows in verses 28-30 (16). The first example and the rest of the list are connected by the phrase "and just as" in verse 28 which indicates that Paul is going to give further examples of the effects of denying God. All of these actions are characterized with a word which Paul treats as synonymous with his verse 26 use of unnatural: unjust/unrighteous (adokimon/ἀδόκιμον). This is the un-doing of the righteousness/justice (dikaosune) (17) which Jesus calls us to in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:10). It is the impact of people warping or interfering with the way of being they would by nature have otherwise inhabited. Thus, what Paul is clearly not talking about is a person who, of themselves and their own healthy development, developed into a person who is attracted to those of their own sex. He is instead working off of the contemporary dominant understanding of most homosexual activity which was understood to be an outcome of hyper-sexuality and unbridled lust (18). McKnight's interpretation of natural as "different from some original design" or "nonconforming to anatomical design" just isn't based in 1st century usage of the term; nor is it compatible with Paul's actual usage of the term in the passage in question.
So I think it is pretty clear that while the term unnatural has had (and I am sure will continue to have) a significant impact on the way Christians think and write about homosexuality. Despite the fact that, as I have tried to show, the word does not in fact condemn or in any way count against the real attractions and relationships of LGB people who marry and are intimate in as loving and beloved-honoring ways as their heterosexual counterparts, its use against them and their relationships has led to incredible harm and pain. To tell a person that they themselves, or that their most intimate one-flesh, unions are not only unnatural but are especially sinful because of it, is to dehumanize and devalue them. The unconscionable outcome of this thinking has been all too predictable. From the Church's historic persecution and sometimes torture of people who engaged in LG sex, to the dire mental health impact on LGB youth who are raised in non-inclusive communities, the designation unnatural together with its Old Testament derived counterpart abomination (19) has enabled and even encouraged a homophobia and dehumanization of the LGB community for which the Church must repent.
He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for
one of the least of these, you did not do for me.
Footnotes:(1) I don't mean to be flippant, I think those discussions are important.
(2) To those of my readers who are part of the LGBTQ community and have had this term leveled at you and used to degrade, deride, and dehumanize you, I want to say that I am sorry and that I hope my exploration and attempted rebuttal of the use of this term in connection to your lives and relationships can be helpful in a way that justifies the pain of this conversation and term.
(3) Aristotle's term was eudaimonia or "good-soul-ed-ness".
(4) Aristotle did have a significant hyper-cognitive bias but that need not interfere here.
(5) Though he did really like to take it back to merely observing nature and reasoning whenever he could.
(6) I am working, largely from the Summa Theologica Questions 49, 153, and 154
(7) Aquinas' third justification for marriage was that, at as a sacrament it has an intrinsic good, but he conceded that non-church marriage could still be good if they fulfilled the other two requirements, so I will focus exclusively on those.
(8) This is the reasoning by which Aquinas is able to shift from sex having to always be procreative to sex having to always be "open to procreation". The procreative purpose of sex (or at least of marriage since Aquinas doesn't do much to distinguish "marriage" from "the context of legitimized sex) does not end at conception but continues on to include the full healthy rearing of a child.
(9) Aquinas does work out a way to excuse nocturnal emissions (it isn't sin if you didn't mean to do it, so don't worry about it unless you went to bed fantasizing about something arousing—then it would be sin)
(10) Anglicans were the first major Christian group to give the official OK to birth control in 1930
(11) I shift my focus here from Western Protestants to American Evangelicals largely because it is Evangelicalism which has presented to most strident opposition to LGB relationships from within the larger Western Protestant community. Mainline and other Protestants have taken a somewhat different approach, in some cases standing in partial or full support of LGB relationships.
(12) For a good overview of pre-culture war Evangelical sexual ethics I would recommend Stanley Grenz' Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective.
(13) Mohler Published the book in October of 2015; the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June of 2016.
(14) If anyone is aware of such a justification please link to it in comments and I will look forward to interacting with it and updating this post.
(15) I have responded to McKnight's argument directly over at the Third Way Newsletter so a portion of this post will recapitulate the arguments I made there.
(16) It is worth noting that this puts "disobedient to parents" (verse 30) on the same moral footing as the activity Paul discusses in verse 26.
(17) For my thoughts on this incredibly rich word, you can read THIS PIECE
(18) I have covered this in PART 2 of this series but Sarah Ruden also does an excellent job demonstrating it in her book Paul Among the People.
(19) Part 3 of this series contains my analysis of the OT texts and one of the many ways in which they have been misunderstood and misapplied.