Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What About Homosexuality? Part 1

I have been asked recently to give my opinion on homosexuality: Is it wrong? What I can offer is only an opinion, and as such it will be flawed and in need of correction. Nevertheless, I will offer it. 

I must begin by confessing a lack of so-called objectivity. As the scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi claimed, there is no possibility of pure objectivity when it comes to the way human beings analyze the things of the world. Even the most learned scientist brings her own worldview and material expectations to the microscope.1

I also lack objectivity because there have been people in my life who tell me that homosexuality is the proper category for their sexual orientation. These people have not been in my life in a casual way--they are people I have loved and valued as friends. It will be impossible for me to approach this topic abstractly, theoretically, philosophically or theologically without seeing the faces of the friends I have known.

The question on the table, again: Is homosexuality wrong? I am a Christian, I have been a pastor and I now work in the field of theological education, so the question behind the question is likely about what I believe God, the Bible, church tradition, etc., claim about homosexuality.

To attempt to address this complex question, I have to start by turning back and asking: What do we mean by wrong? There are at least two ways to approach that question.

1.  Something can be deemed wrong because it is incorrect or misplaced. Chili powder is the wrong seasoning for lemonade. "Five" is the wrong answer to "What is the sum of two plus two?"

2. Something can be deemed wrong because it violates a moral or ethical standard within a communal system, like a nation, a state, a city, a religious community, and so on. In this sense, wrong is determined by a standard that transcends, or is above and outside, human preferences. Murder is considered wrong because most human communities place a high value on human life, for a variety of reasons. Diverting funds from a charity into the pockets of the charity's executives is considered wrong because the act violates a trust and puts the declared recipients of the charity's gifts at risk.

I sat in a public high school classroom a few years ago as a group of honors students discussed the issue of same-sex marriage. The opinions differed as the group worked through their questions and thought process. More than one student suggested that homosexuality presented a problem because of the "lock and key." Suspecting I knew what they meant, I inquired further. The claim was that they found homosexuality to be puzzling because, to put it crudely, the parts didn't seem to fit. For these students there was something wrong anatomically. They understood that males and females had sexual organs that were designed (by God, by evolutionary processes, and so on) to have intercourse which had the potential to foster reproduction. One organ was a giver and the other a receiver, with particular reproductive (and pleasurable) results.

These students were claiming that homosexuality was wrong because of the incongruity of the sexual organs. In this sense wrong would be akin to being different. It would be an issue of fitness.

But the question at hand is linked more to the issue of morality than to that of fitness.


1. Michael Polanyi sets the stage for his argument by claiming ". . . that complete objectivity as usually attributted to the exact sciences is a delusion and is in fact a fast ideal" (p. 18). He states later, ". . . Personal knowledge in science is not made but discovered, and as such it claims to establish contact with reality beyond the clues on which it relies. It commits us, passionately and far beyond our comprehension, to a vision of reality. Of this responsibility we cannot divest ourselves by setting up objective criteria of verifiability . . . For we live in it as in the garment of our own skin" (p. 64). Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press, 1974.

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