When I was 14 I was sent to a special evangelical camp that was run by Focus on the Family. It's purpose was to ensure that once the next generation of Christians entered college, they would have the intellectual and spiritual tools to maintain their faith in a hostile, anti-Christian environment. They were there to shape our world-views and teach us Christian apologetics. Besides a healthy dose of anti-Communist lectures, (I was there just as the USSR was starting to crumble.) we were taught about how terrible homosexuality was. I'm sure at some point they told to hate the sin, not the sinner. But all I remember was the vivid pictures one speaker was painting for us. I don't remember where he got his information, but what he said surely impacted my perception powerfully. He talked about gay bath houses, where people would roll around in each others feces. And while I don't doubt such places exist, I'm very confident that it's a tiny minority, and that there are heterosexuals who do the same thing. Sadly, this was presented as the norm for homosexuals.
In the past several years I've been working through the issue of homosexuality and Christianity and how it relates to my worldview because, well, it's kind of hard to ignore lately. I don't know why I'm so fascinated by this issue. I don't really have a horse in this race. I'm not super into church, (says the guy who tithes, goes to church every Sunday and helps his pastor with sermons and creates art for them) or into homosexuality. But I suppose it's really the historical nature of the issue. This truly is a defining moment in history for Christianity. Well, for society as a whole, really. This is all very unprecedented There are examples in small pockets of time and place where homosexuality was openly practiced, and sometimes even praised. But those are small blips on the historical radar. Never has such a large percentage of the global population come to a conclusion about homosexuality other than 'it's bad'. Mass media, global communications, and a relentless PR campaign through the culture-making institutions such as universities and Hollywood have really pulled off a massive feat.
And I'm not immune to it. My perspective on the issue has gradually shifted as I've partaken in probably hundreds of conversations and debates on the topic. Coming from a conservative evangelical background, my perception of homosexuality was pretty far to an extreme. Not all the to Westboro's or Hollywood caricatures of Christians, but still very much adamant that God really, really hates homosexuality and that it's a very icky sin, and that people have to be really screwed up to be gay. Now I'm more like... meh. I've thrown every argument I can muster against the tide, and found them all lacking. Do I now think that homosexuality is healthy and wonderful? I don't know. I know plenty of very nice homosexuals, who seem to be grounded and healthy. I also know a couple who clearly aren't. But isn't that true of any demographic? (Except the Grounded-and-Healthy demographic I suppose.) It seems to me that from an evolutionary perspective, homosexuality is disorder. As in: there is an order by which organisms reproduce and keep their genes going, and being sexually attracted to the same gender is outside of that order. I don't think the evolutionary perspective should be ignored, or one ought to pretend it doesn't exist. But as with all disorders, the thing that keeps our species from being like the rest of the animals is the modifier of cultural accommodation. We don't feed our weak and sick to the jackals like the water buffalo do. We don't accept the larger males beating the smaller ones up and mating with all the females like pretty much every animal species does. We came up with the concept of individual rights, empathy, charity, and the like. These things balance out the Darwinian survival of the fittest.
Now the vast, vast, vast majority of cultures that have existed on this planet throughout history have demonized homosexuality. Some smaller percent have allowed it in sub-cultural ghettos, or among the elite. And a tiny, tiny percentage have openly embraced it, including ours today. I'm interested in WHY the proportions are this way. The easy, modern liberal answer is that all people in history were backward, ignorant, evil pinheads. But I've read too much history to buy that. The easy conservative answer is that it is clearly a gross perversion of nature and God wrote this on our hearts. But I think that one of the biggest reasons had to do with family structure, which was not only the foundation of a social order, but also health and life insurance, before those things existed. If you didn't have kids, and lots of them, chances were you were going to die much sooner, with no one to care for you and house you. So everything outside of that social order was suspect. Old widows were witches, homosexuals were dirty perverts.
Fast forward to today. Our technological innovations have buffered us from nature. Sex no longer equals babies. New social welfare programs mean the family is no longer seen as the first stop when emergencies hit, or when you get old and sick. These technological and governmental innovations have lowered the NEED for cohesive family structures. At least enough that the threshold is such that it is no longer sacred. We are in a post-family culture. Well, as long as our technological infrastructure holds. And in this culture, old widows and homosexuals are no longer outcasts, because they are not standing in sharp contrast to the lifeline of stability and safety.
The point I'm trying to make about society providing a counterweight to Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, is that culture is a manifestation of our human compassion instantiated in tradition and institutions. If you take the goal of nature to be the propagation of itself, (and I'm not sure how you can get more basic than that, whatever else the point is, cannot exist without propagation at it's root.) then homosexuality is certainly a 'flaw' from a natural perspective. Yet our cultures are there specifically to assist flawed people. People with disease, mental handicaps, social abnormalities, etc. Part of the assistance is a codified moral order. A way to protect the innocent from those who would take advantage of them. So things like lying, false witness, murder, theft, etc. are all there for really obvious reasons. A society can't function without those foundational moral precepts. Justice couldn't exist. And when you start composing lists of evils, these things all naturally fall on them. The Bible has a couple lists like this. Some of the things on these lists are universal, some are culture-specific.
Depending on your approach to the Bible you will take the cultural ones as universal for all times and places, or you will see them as coming from a perspective that is rooted in the time and place it was uttered. One way you can separate the two is by simply investigating the reasoning behind them. Like I said, lying and murder are obvious. Wearing mixed fabric is not. Men with long hair is not. Homosexuality is harder to call because of all the cultural and historical baggage it has. When anything is shoved into the margins of sub-cultures, it's going to get mixed in with the other sub-cultures, many of which are illicit. Substance abuse, promiscuity, etc. are all waiting to mingle with the stigmatized. And the real question I have is this: would that mingling still exist if a sub-culture is no longer stigmatized? If homosexuality is NATURALLY destructive, and corrosive to a society then no amount of welcoming it into the larger culture will make it healthy. But if it is simply a benign quirk of physiology, like Tourette's syndrome or OCD, then stigmatizing it is a truly hateful thing. It's not like stigmatizing things on the universal list, such as abuse, lying and murder, where pressure is applied that counters damaging natural instincts. Most people can agree that if we stoped stigmatizing lying, our culture would quickly descend into chaos. I'm just not comfortable making the same argument about homosexuality. There simply is not enough data. There are too many variables. And in cases such as these, I'd like to err on the side of empathy and charity.
So let's get back to the Bible. If you believe that every word in the Bible was carefully arranged by the Creator of the Universe, the idea of inerrancy is really your only natural conclusion, and accepting that anything on those Naughty Lists is not actually a horrible sin is not an option. And this is where the issue of homosexuality and Christianity gets really interesting to me. It hinges completely on your philosophy of the Bible. Christianity will be defined in the future by how it answers this. What the dominant philosophy of Bible will be.
I've studied the history of how the Bible came about, and also how it was interpreted over the 2,000 years these documents have been around. And I was surprised by what a wide range of philosophies there have been. Coming from my evangelical strain of Christianity, I assumed there was really only one approach to the Bible, and that was the inerrancy model. The "God said it, I believe, that settles it." model. Every word HAD to be precisely placed by God or NONE of it was valid or worthwhile. This philosophy of Bible was so pervasive in my branch that we eisegeteically read it onto all of history. How surprised I was that one of the greatest heroes of my family and intellectual evangelicalism, C.S. Lewis, did not share this philosophy! And the very men who brought about our reformation had no problem cutting out books from the established cannon. The catholic tradition does not view the Bible with the philosophy of inerrancy. And most of the non-evangelical branches of modern Christianity don't either. It turns out inerrancy is a niche philosophy of Bible that is fairly new on the scene, and it's put Christianity in an interesting position, forcing it into a counter-cultural ghetto. I'm not saying going against the flow necessarily bad. In general, there are always going to be trends within a culture that are damaging, and so resisting those is great. The Church should always stand up for righteousness, health, discipline and mostly love, and however it clashes with the culture at large should never sway that position.
But what I see happening within the more conservative denominations of Christianity is a position taken based on a minority (historically speaking) position on the philosophy of Bible, that is forcing them to sacrifice one set of standards, (the universal ones like love and charity) for a culturally specific set. (a culture from thousands of years ago) I want to be clear, that no evangelical I know is actually hateful towards homosexuals in their FEELINGS. The political and philosophical ramifications of their political power might be, but it is NOT motivated by hate, as the left likes to proclaim. If you truly believe that a person's sex life is going to result in eternal torment it would be supremely unloving to be apathetic about their sex life.
So evangelicalism will go one of two directions that I can guess at. First, they can stick to their conviction that for Christianity to survive and be real, it needs inerrancy, and therefore homosexuality must be a sin condemned by God. Therefore a real Christian needs to condemn homosexuality, and naturally act politically to fight it. I think the cultural tide is so great that if the evangelical Church goes this way, it will continue to wane, become less and less relevant in culture, and eventually be lumped in with the Westboro Baptists as fringe kooks full of hate. (I know Hollywood already does that lumping, but I'm talking about the vast majority of the culture at large.)
The second option is that they return to one of the historical philosophies of Bible, separate the universal sins from the culturally conditioned ones, and learn to live with Christian homosexuals.
Of course there is the third option. The one that most Evangelicals are faithfully expecting. And that is a revival of their brand of Christianity that will sweep the nation and the cultural tide will start moving with them rather than against them. This idea has some credence in that our current cultural state is an anomaly And the pendulum is always swinging. But we have a massive wild card here: technology. As long as that is a factor it's such a game changer that I'm not sure the pendulum is still on the same trajectory.
In the latest debate I've been involved in, someone had this to say about the issue.
"My problem with that is that this cultural paradigm did NOT rise from within the church but actually from within political and atheistic realms."
My response as follows:
The church has constantly evolved with the society around it. Look at all the cultural forms that existed before Christianity that were used as building blocks: baptism, speaking in tongues, shared meals, god sacrificing himself, resurrection, etc. And then the conformity to the pre-existing pagan holy days like Saturnalia and Ishtar, re-skinning them to fit. Then there's the enlightenment, which I understand, (because I used to do it) that Christian apologists say started as a result of the reformation. But a little deeper historical study will show you that the roots of both the enlightenment and the reformation started long before either, and they are siblings, not a parent/child structure. One of the greatest shifts in societal evolution -the rejection of historically validated authority structures- rocked the Catholic church so hard it broke apart, spawning the thousands of denominations we have today. We are 500 years past that, so we feel like this fragmented state is just the way things ought to be, but a little historical perspective, and damn... that is a HUGE change the church went through from outside societal influence. Shattered from two (Eastern and Western) branches to tens of thousands of pieces because the people of the church agreed with the enlightenment concept of individual liberties and rationality (or revelation in the case of reformation heroes) over established power structures.
So when it comes to the gay thing... that ship has sailed. The Church EXISTS today BECAUSE it evolves with the cultures it inhabits. From a biblical interpretation perspective, you can go one of two routs that I can perceive. (If you want to be consistent.) First, you can say it's a terrible perverse sin that will send folks to hell. That's fine. But to be consistent you better stick with the lists that homosexuality is on. Such as liars. So as long as you're ready to admit that every single human, (with the exception of infants perhaps) is going to hell, then you'll be consistent. And let's not forget that Paul thinks long hair on a man is "unnatural' as well. Then back to the OT and everyone who eats shellfish or wears mixed fabrics is going to hell as well.
The other rout is to acknowledge the cultural perspective of the writers. That the cultures they spoke into were in a different stage of development than ours. Women were property, slaves were property, homosexuals were evil. That is the world all these writers lived in. and if you want to embrace just one of those culturally contextual items, you ought to embrace them all. If you want to be consistent.