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Friday, May 06, 2016

Romans 1, original sin, and identity

One of the key passages in theological debates over homosexuality is Romans 1, in which Paul appears to label same-sex sexual behavior as an example of the depravity that results from idolatry and human sinfulness generally. Morgan Guyton argues in this recent post that, in fact, the teaching of Romans 1 leads in the opposite direction. One way to make this point, found in this address by the Catholic theologian James Allison, is to argue that Paul is using examples of sexual depravity that Jews would have found horrifying in order to set up the rhetorical "punch-line" of Romans 2. Allison points out that it's pretty ironic to use Romans 1 as an excuse for pointing at some "other" group of people and demonizing them as hopelessly depraved, when that's exactly what Paul is criticizing his Jewish readers for doing in Romans 2. (Morgan makes very similar points in his book How Jesus Saves the World From Us and, implicitly, in this piece as well.) So I'm broadly in agreement with the point Morgan makes in the conclusion to his post:
. . . .since I’ve met too many LGBT people who are plainly not filled with wickedness, evil, covetousness, and malice, I have concluded that Paul is not condemning LGBT identity itself in Romans 1. When I was filled with wickedness, evil, covetousness, and malice, it was an LGBT church that nurtured me back to health. 
However, agreeing with people is boring. Here's the part I disagree with. Morgan argues in the first section of his post that original sin should be understood as social, not biological. He repeats the common claim that Augustine basically invented this idea based on a mistranslation. (I don't think that's true--Augustine used a questionable translation of Romans 5:12 to support his theology, but I don't think that one verse was the reason he came up with the theology in the first place. I also question whether the weaker pre-Augustinian language of an "inherited stain" should be understood as purely social.) He finds the idea that "people are born wicked" to be "one of the most nihilistic, toxic teachings of pop Christianity."

I wouldn't, myself, say "born wicked." But I would say "born/conceived as sinful beings." I don't think we can reduce original sin to the effects of socialization on us and rule out a "biological" component. I believe that the Biblical and traditional picture of the Fall (human and/or angelic) is that it affects every aspect of the universe as we know and experience it. (See my seven-part blog series on Greg Boyd's "warfare theology," especially this post on Boyd's doctrine of creation. While I focus in that post on problems I have with aspects of Boyd's position--as I said, agreeing with people is boring--I think he makes an excellent claim for the need to invoke the fall of created beings as part of our explanation even of "natural evil.")

Morgan argues that Paul's appeal to a natural knowledge of God in Romans 1 refutes the idea that "we were born with a 'fallen nature' that makes us unable to see and worship God." I agree. This is why I think the Calvinist view of human sinfulness is untenable. Calvin, for instance, argues that people are culpable for not recognizing God even though the knowledge of God in creation is never going to be enough to bring them to salvation, and I find his argument completely unconvincing. Similarly, Morgan argues in the second part of the post that criticizing same-sex behavior but not orientation is a "compromise" reached by evangelical Christians who realize that they can't "pray the gay away." From a Catholic perspective, at least, this isn't true at all. (Gagnon, whom Morgan cites as saying that orientation is sinful, is, again, a Calvinist.) Orientation, while it may be "disordered," is not in itself sinful. In both of these cases, Morgan is setting up a false dichotomy.

The Fall may affect our biology without making us incapable of seeing and worshiping God. It may consist in part of disordered desires which are shaped by culture so as to become part of our identity. We are all affected by this. We all have identities that are, in part, idolatrous. I understand how glib it seems for a heterosexual to say "we're all sinners." And of course the claim that we are all sinners, that all of our desires are disordered to some degree, and that all of our identities are idolatrous to some degree, doesn't necessarily mean that same-sex desire is "intrinsically disordered" (i.e., that a sexual desire for a person of the same sex is disordered by virtue of the sex it is oriented to). But it provides conceptual space in which this is a possibility. I applaud Morgan's reluctance to tell someone else that their sense of identity is wrong. But when I am asked to reject and tear down the historic Christian understanding of sexuality and marriage (and yes, I know many progressives deny that there is any such thing as a coherent "historic Christian position," but I can't address that here) on the basis of someone's sense of identity, my belief that all of our identities are shaped by idolatry is going to make me slow to join in the crusade.

Morgan describes the position of "sexual traditionalists" as being "that LGBT identity is just a fad created by the market, an unnatural desire formed by our skewed frame of reference." I certainly would not trivialize LGBT identity in this way. I do say--and said in a comment on Morgan's FB post a few days ago--that I think the broad cultural framework in which we debate these issues is shaped by what Zygmunt Bauman would call "liquid capitalism." And possibly Morgan had that remark of mine in mind. I was not clear enough in that discussion that I think this shapes all of us--I am not for a minute suggesting that gays are somehow more the puppets of late capitalism than the rest of us. We are all shaped by a culture that bombards us constantly (through advertising, for instance) with the message that we are defined by our unique, unquestionably valid desires, and that these desires (which drive the engine of capitalism) cannot be denied without harming us. 

So yes, it's clearly true that Paul's condemnations do not apply primarily or in their full force to people who are in faithful same-sex sexual relationships. But Paul's portrait of a world mired in idolatry applies to our world of late capitalism as it applied to the world of Greco-Roman paganism. And so when there is a call to change an important part of Christian doctrine and practice, I have to ask myself whether that change will really (as Morgan thinks) move us toward greater freedom from idolatry, or whether it's a move toward a different kind of idolatry. From my perspective, this is exactly why we have the Christian tradition to guide us--not that we accept it blindly or uncritically, but that we allow it to raise questions about the idolatries to which we may be blinded by the mores of our place and time.

But of course, most people who champion "sexual traditionalism" not only do so in a way that is cruel and unjust to gay people (which I may well be guilty of as well, though I try not to be), but abstract it from these larger cultural issues. Conservative Christians seriously seem to think that gay marriage is a horrific threat to society while drone warfare, pervasive gun violence, social inequality, torture, and environmental devastation are all, at most, political issues which Christians should carefully think about while avoiding taking "self-righteous" absolute positions. (That's leaving out the large number of conservative Christians who think that right-wing solutions to these issues are the only "Biblical" ones!). That's one reason why I find Catholic social and moral teaching so compelling--it addresses the whole range of moral issues in a way that cuts across left-right dichotomies. I think that the Catholic Church is wrong about women's ordination, and they may be wrong on sexuality too (or they may turn out to be right about women's ordination as well). I don't think we have certainty about any of this, and I think we should be charitable to each other as we try to work it out.

1 comment:

Sophia Montgomery said...

It's the ideas of "sex for pleasure", or "sex for solidifying a relationship between two people", or "sex because it's normal", and such that are idolatry; and it doesn't matter whether it's about sex between a man and a woman, or two men, or two women, or a person and a thing, or whatever other combination there is.

In this sense, "sexual traditionalism" is also a form of idolatry, because it places sexual pleasures or adherence to some social norms above God.