Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Same-sex relations: The argument from the Old Testament

Occasionally, the Old Testament (OT) prohibitions on same-sex sexual activity are used as part of a Christian theological case for the impermissibility of same-sex sexual activity. There is one weakness in this argument that I want to address (I do not want to deny that there are other issues), and this is that some OT rules--most evidently dietary ones--have been sublated in New Testament times and are binding on the Christian in a non-literal form (e.g., the prohibitions on some foods that come into a person's mouth might be transformed into a prohibition on the speech that comes out of a person's mouth). The traditional answer is to distinguish between "ceremonial" and "moral" precepts, and to claim that the ceremonial ones no longer literally bind those who have died in Christ (though they may exist in a sublated form), but the moral ones are eternal. The opponent of the argument against same-sex sexual relations may well claim that the prohibition in question falls in the ceremonial category.

But I think there is a different way of fixing up the OT-based argument for impermissibility. I shall claim that it would be inappropriate for the God of love to prohibit same-sex sexual relations unless these relations are wrong. Here is the argument.

After all, there are persons whose sexual attraction is exclusively towards members of their own sex. Some highly motivated such individuals do apparently succeed in changing their attractions to opposite-sex ones, but it does not seem that the majority succeed (I've heard from a colleague that the best data indicates that about 30% of highly motivated same-sex attracted individuals can change to have an attraction for the opposite-sex). It is also plausible that same-sex attracted individuals unable to change to being opposite-sex attracted existed in not insignificant numbers in ancient Israel. The defender of same-sex sexual relations is unlikely to deny this.

Now, flourishing in a morally upright romantic relationship is one of the central parts of human flourishing (that does not deny that some might appropriately sacrifice this form of flourishing for the supernatural goals of celibacy), and it is particularly a flourishing in respect of our capacity to love. If same-sex sexual relations are morally permissible (apart from divine prohibitions), then same-sex romantic relationships will, surely, be a central part of the potential human flourishing of same-sex attracted individuals. Furthermore, sexual relations within marital commitment are the consummation of a romantic relationship. If same-sex sexual relations are morally permissible, then to prohibit same-sex sexual relations to an individual incapable of opposite-sex sexual relations is to prohibit the individual from exercising a central part of human flourishing. And this seems an inappropriate thing for the God who is Love to do, and whose purpose for us is to fulfill our love. (In fact, I think a number of the statements in this paragraph are standard parts of the case for the permissibility of same-sex sexual relations.)

In summary, if same-sex sexual relations are morally permissible (apart from divine prohibitions), they enter into the consummation of morally upright romantic relationships for people incapable of flourishing within opposite-sex romantic relationships. But if so, then it was inappropriate for our God to have forbidden them in OT times. But God did forbid them in OT times, and God does not do what is inappropriate. Hence, it was appropriate for our God to forbid these relations, and hence the relations were not morally permissible. But morality itself does not change (though ceremonies do), and hence even now they are not morally permissible.

Observe that a similar argument cannot be made in the case of clearly ceremonial precepts. E.g., ham is yummy, but eating ham is not central to the fulfillment of human individuals. Even if one were biologically constituted so that ham is the food that would taste best to one, it would be false that there is a central part of human flourishing to which the eating of ham would be essential. So even though eating ham is not morally wrong (in itself), it would not be inappropriate for our God to prohibit it to a segment of the human population.

Objection 1: Perhaps God had made a special blanket call for a segment of the Israelite population (namely, the same-sex attracted population, or at least the portion of it unable to change the attraction) to engage in the supernatural self-sacrifice of chaste celibacy.

Responses: This seems implausible. First, widespread celibacy for a supernatural reason seems to be a new thing in Christian times. Second, there is no indication of a special supernatural goal being given to this segment of the population, though it is possible that one was given, but no data survives about this.

Objection 2: God has absolute authority over us. He would be fully within his rights to prohibit blue-eyed people from engaging in sexual relations with anybody. We have no right to our human flourishing--it is all a gift of God.

Response: I think there is much to this objection. Indeed, I think it is the most powerful objection to my argument. However, even though such a prohibition would probably be permissible to God in the abstract, it does not seem to fit with God's plans for the human race as shown in Scripture. God gives us life, life to the full.

Objection 3: The objection proves too much, because it also shows that God is not within his rights to allow impotence to happen (since impotence makes the marital consummation of romantic relationships impossible). But impotence happens, and God is omnipotent, so God must be allowing it to happen.

Response: There is a difference between permitting and doing. God permits evils to happen to us, in order that a greater good might be instantiated, but that is not the same as positively doing evil. However, if God actually prohibited same-sex sexual relations, and these relations were a crucial part of the human flourishing of some individuals, then this would be a much more direction relation between God and the evil--it would be like God forbade us from breathing. A prohibition is an action.

Objection 4: The commands in the OT are not the word of God but the word of humans.

Response: I said I would be responding to a specific objection to the OT-based argument against same-sex sexual relations, not against every objection. Objection 4 applies to just about every Scriptural argument. Those like me who accept the divine inspiration of Scripture (without denying that the human authors were authors, along with God) will not find Objection 4 particularly compelling.


Enigman said...

Was your response to your first objection rather weak, though? First, much that seemed new in Christian times was really the supernatural continuation of the immutably divine will behind the older stuff (or so it seems). Second, there being no surviving data about God's motives would not be surprising were this objection correct (does God often explain Himself?) and so this absence hardly tells against it.

Phillip Winn said...

It seems that your argument likes crucially on "Now, flourishing in a morally upright romantic relationship is one of the central parts of human flourishing, and it is particularly a flourishing in respect of our capacity to love."

That a romantic relationship is different from eating ham is clearly true. That the difference supports your argument fully is more debatable, I think.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr. Winn:

I think much of the force of gay-rights arguments comes from the importance of romantic relationships to human flourishing. Forbidding same-sex romantic relationships is not relevantly like forbidding the eating of blueberry ice cream. Granted, the latter prohibition would adversely impact those of us who do not like any flavor of ice cream other than blueberry, and could thus be seen as discriminatory. But it would be hard to get people excited about the issue on either side, simply because what was prohibited is not something of great significance to human life.
Now, some gay-rights advocates think that sex is not a very significant part of life, and some might say the same thing about romantic relationships. But one would not expect a Jewish or Christian gay-rights advocate to say that.

I agree.

Bob MacDonald said...

I think it is difficult for you to avoid the conclusion you want to come to. God is not first moral. God is first God. Any other first thing is not God but idolatry. The central message of the psalms is that God will judge the nations with righteousness. What righteousness is this apart from the death of Christ and all of us in that death - and the infinite newness of the resurrection and the explosion of the gift of the Holy Spirit. How God completes someone who is not like you and is not predisposed to come to your conclusion is between God and that person - judge nothing before the time. You do not know in advance how God will deal with two committed persons who are not exploiting one another or other wise unequal in their relationships. It could be that the Holy Spirit will deal with them in a way that meets with your pre-judgment of what God should do and it might be that God will bless them otherwise. If two people of the same sex claim their love for each other in the bonds of Christ, I do not think we should bind them as being in sin, but loose them as being in the Spirit for so they have claimed and it is not up to me to deny them. All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Alexander R Pruss said...

God is also Logos. He is the Reason behind everything. The moral law is written in our hearts, indeed even in the hearts of pagans, and while his works are a mystery, in New Testament times some of this mystery is revealed to us. It is quite clear from the New Testament that we are capable of judging which actions are right and which actions are wrong. The spiritual man judges all things.

We cannot judge what is in people's hearts--that is for God alone. But we can say that an action is condemnable without saying that the person is condemnable, since the person might be acting in good, but mistaken, conscience.

Nonetheless, to act in mistaken conscience is not spiritually healthy--it is not the normal state of those redeemed by the light of Christ.

Bob MacDonald said...

Alexander - yes - the Logos is God, but that is not to say that our reasoning is God or that our hearts are not deceptive. The ambivalence of some births with regard to their sexuality should give us pause as to how 'reason' enters the argument. So too should the realization that we in the image of God are both male and female - that is in each of us.

Along these lines is also this rationale: If indeed I have known God, whom to know is eternal life; if indeed I am in him who was crucified for me and he in me who lives for him, then I will know that my limited judgment of my own body is not the basis on which I could have judged myself let alone the consecration of brothers and sisters who do not conform to my purity scruples. If God has shown me the fire by which he accepts even a water-logged offering, I will know that no one who thinks differently from me about sexuality in Christ will have taken this stand out of lasciviousness.

If we are Christ’s, we have crucified the flesh and its desires, whether covetousness and status, inordinate appetite, or the desire to be right on our own terms. And now that we are his - should we not celebrate consecration of friendships and love relationships whether same sex or otherwise? It is not the abusers who are asking for our inclusion. It is those to whom God has taught his own mercy, those who are already his beloved.

Alexander R Pruss said...

While we can celebrate friendships and love between any pair of people, there are different forms of love appropriate to different pairs of people. The love that a parent has a for small child is not an appropriate form of love for a husband to have for a wife. The love that spouses have for each other is not an appropriate form of love for siblings to have for each other, nor vice versa. And, yes, these are judgments that we can make, on the basis of reason, the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church which Paul calls the "pillar and ground of truth".

Bob MacDonald said...

Alexander, I hope it does not surprise you that I agree with your judgment. Some relationships are inherently unequal. Some are inherently exploitive and prevent a fullness of growth or any element of completion. This is not the case with some adult same-gendered relationships. We have to be able to 'distinguish things that are different'.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't think the possibility of growth and completion, and the absence of exploitation, are sufficient conditions for a relationship to be morally good. (Romantic relationships between siblings raised apart have the possibility of growth and completion, and there need be no exploitation. But they are still inappropriate.)

Also, the ways in which a relationship is inappropriate may not be immediately apparent to us. We might, for instance, need God's word to tell us.

I do think my argument still stands. If same-sex romantic love is appropriate, and if God is the God of love, then it would have been inappropriate for God to forbid same-sex sexual relations in Old Testament times. But he did forbid it, and he is the God of love, so we need to deny that same-sex romantic love is appropriate.

larryniven said...

Would you also, therefore, condone the modern genocide of the Canannites or Amalekites (assuming we can identify who, if anybody, they are)? Life, I think, is essential to human flourishing, and God prohibits life on the part of those people in the Jewish Bible.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's a really good question.

I think there are disanalogies to my case.

1. God didn't prohibit the Amaleqites and Canaanites from living. He didn't command suicide to them. He commanded the Israelites to kill them.

2. In Old Testament times, there was a significant difference between God's treatment of the Israelites and God's treatment of other nations. The commandments were given primarily out of his love for the people of Israel. So we learn from the Torah about what is good for those to whom the commandments are addressed, and not so much about what is good for others. The commandments were good for the Israelites, and were revelative of his love for them. In particular it follows that the prohibition on same-sex sexual activity was good for the Israelites.

That does not mean that God didn't love the other nations, including the Amaleqites and Canaanites, but that the Torah is not where we look for the expression of that love.

Of course this raises the question of how to reconcile God's love for the Amaleqites and Canaanites with his ordering the Israelites to slaughter them. I do not think this act of slaughter is revelative of God's love for the Amaleqites and Canaanites, but it is compatible with that love. Divide the Amaleqites and Canaanites into two classes: the guilty and the innocent. For the innocent, their death would take them out of a morally corrupt community, a community that would be likely to morally corrupt them--and it be morally corrupted is worse than death. For the guilty, their death would be a punishment, and (this is a rather Kantian point) it is good for one to get what one deserves. Of course, this was a judgment only God had the right to make.

larryniven said...

"God didn't prohibit the Amaleqites and Canaanites from living. He didn't command suicide to them. He commanded the Israelites to kill them."

I think the only difference here is who must enforce the prohibition. In the case of homosexuality, oneself must enforce it, whereas in this case, the Israelites were supposed to enforce it upon someone else. Given that the Israelites certainly still exist, I'm not sure yet if there's a compelling reason for this to change your logic. Maybe you already have one, though?

There's also a case to be made that the Israelites could've at least tried to rescue the innocent ones. The commandments are very specific about not letting a single one escape, so it's not like there's a claim to vagueness. Also, given what we know now about how societies indoctrinate people into their moral systems, it's hard to believe that literally every person who currently existed in those societies, and who would ever exist in those societies, would be beyond help. Maybe the answer to this is that the attempt to help would have resulted in far greater harm to Israel, although it seems like there's no way we can know that.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think you're right that figuring out the issues with the Amaleqites requires more knowledge than we have (but God is omniscient and so he was able to figure them out). Another relevant thing is that life is a gift from God, a gift he is free to revoke. Now you might try to make a case that God is likewise free to revoke the gift of sexuality. Could be--but then the Torah would not be the expression of God's love for Israel, just as the Torah would not be the expression of God's love for Israel if God commanded the killing of a large group of innocent Israelites in the Torah.

Anonymous said...

The regulations concerning "leprosy" might give some trouble. Many of the diseases described in Lev 13 are perfectly harmless in themselves, but an Israelite who suffered from one of them his whole life would have been exiled permanently.

Although group acceptance is a fundamental human good, and although it would have been moral for the wretched Israelite to be a part of the community, still God inappropriately forbade it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That is an interesting example. I hadn't thought about it.

Here's a thought: Group acceptance is a basic human good. Now, the unfortunate persons have to live apart from the main community, but in doing so they are living as part of a community of other quarantined persons. What would violate the good of group acceptance would be depriving someone entirely of community through solitary confinement. But here there is no total deprivation of the good of community, but only partial deprivation. (For a different case, take Abraham's being sent by God out of his native land.)

Maybe, though, the defender of same-sex relationships could say that nobody is 100% homosexual and nobody is 100% heterosexual, so there is no total deprivation of romantic relationships either in the sexual case when the same-sex sexual relationships are forbidden, since opposite-sex sexual relationships are still open. I am not sure how many defenders of same-sexual activity would want to make a case like that.

Enigman said...

Yes, nice analogy; in Christian times, the unavailability of homosexual marriages may well have led many homosexuals into the Church proper (monasteries, nunneries and such like) - we don't know, but it seems plausible - and that may have helped the Church to survive in this fallen world. In the OT, maybe it was important to the survival of Israel to encourage the production of children. (Is it a problem that gay sex was said to be abominable? I'm not sure, e.g. whales are not fish, except insofar as they can be fished; so I wonder, maybe something was lost in translation.) Maybe we can do better nowadays?