Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Critiquing Robert Gagnon Pt. 1 - The Genesis Problem

I have recently been reading Robert Gagnon's "The Bible and Homosexual Practice", and no it is not because I hate myself (though sometimes I wonder...). Instead I decided to tackle it because, well hey someone else bought the thing and understanding the opposition is paramount in the struggle for equality. I will be writing several entries in this series as I go through the book. There have already been several reviews of Gagnon's work, two the best critiques can be found here and here

I think it is important to head these reviews off with a caveat found in Walter Wink's review: " I have long insisted that the issue is one of hermeneutics, and that efforts to twist the text to mean what it clearly does not say are deplorable. Simply put, the Bible is negative toward same-sex behavior, and there is no getting around it. The issue is precisely what weight that judgment should have in the ethics of Christian life."

In the early chapters of Gagnon's book he lays out every reference to homosexuality he could possibly find in scriptures. He then summarizes them, and the arguments around them. All the usual suspects are here, along with a few weird additions. For now I'd like to focus on what Gagnon has to say about the creation accounts in Genesis. (I should note that personally, I believe in evolution and see the creation accounts as allegorical to begin with, none-the-less, their exegesis is important for this debate).

Gagnon starts this section of the book by admitting first that the creation stories do not have anything to say about homosexuality, and then arguing that they set out a general sexual ethics.
"The creation stories of Genesis 1-3 do not speak directly to the issue of homosexual practice. However, they do supply us with a general understanding of human sexuality, set within the broader context of God's grand purpose at creation."
This is pretty typical of the kind of logical leaps Gagnon regularly makes. As he himself admits, Genesis does not "speak directly to the issue," but Gagnon won't let that stop him from making it speak to the issue. The idea that the Genesis creation story is not just about the creation and subsequent fall of humanity, but is really also about sexuality and gender, baffles me. Yes, Genesis portrays heterosexuality as normative (Adam and Eve would have struggled populating the Earth had God made them homosexuals), but that does not make it prescriptive.

To an extant I do understand what Gagnon is trying to do here. He is attempting to look at the two creation accounts and understand what they say about their respective authors views on homosexuality. My problem with this is that the authors are known only as P (Priestly) and J (Yahwist) and likely wrote these accounts down several thousands of years ago, after having received them via an oral tradition that was likely even older. When Gagnon speaks of "looking at P's view of human sexuality," one has to ask a few questions.

First, how would P (or Y, or anyone from their time period) have a view on "human sexuality" when the study of such didn't even exist at the time? This is similar to the way many traditionalists talk about the "Bible's view on homosexuality" despite the notion of sexual orientation being completely foreign to the Biblical authors.

Second, how exactly could anyone today, a good three to four thousand years in the future, possibly know what the author(s) of Genesis believed based on a few paragraphs? Gagnon can make guesses all he likes, but I'm unconvinced that he has any better idea of what these ancients "really" believed than "pro-gay" theologians. And as mentioned in the intro to this series, I don't argue with the fact that the Israelite's view of same-sex behavior was universally negative. The question is, in light of the many other attitudes of that ancient culture that we have come to reject, how should we deal with the modern issue of homosexuals and other sexual minorities.

Gagnon shows off his ability to read the minds of ancient religious authors again when he writes:
"The argument might be made that since the present problem of the earth is not underpopulation but overpopulation, the mandate for heterosexual coupling need no longer be the norm. Doubtlessly, the Priestly writer would have responded: Should humans then mate with animals to avoid procreation? Or has God changed the complementarity of male and female anatomy? God's intent for human sexuality is imbedded in the material creation of gendered beings, irrespective of the globe's population."
Doubtlessly? Really? Gagnon must have some kind of gift to be able to know, without doubt, not only what an anonymous, unknown ancient author thought but also how he would have responded to a hypothetical question. I find the ease with which Gagnon makes these assertions troubling. It is one thing to claim that "I believe" or "it is likely" about something, it is another entirely to repeatedly claim to know exactly how other people, from thousands of years ago, thought.

In Gagnon's imagined response to the question of overpopulation he also makes the same fundamental error that most anti-gay activists do, he attempts to turn homosexuality into little more than a kink. When he, pretending to be P, asks the reader, "[s]hould humans then mate with animals to avoid procreation?" he is playing on the most basic of anti-gay biases, the idea that we are just in it for the sex.

The question, as Gagnon has his imaginary Priest frame it, is about humans using animals to meet their sexual needs without risking procreation. The motive here for not having sex with the opposite sex is to avoid procreation, and the motive for having sex with animals is presumably that it is the most pleasurable alternative. This of course ignores the issue of love and commitment as the driving motivation behind same-sex coupling and intercourse, and instead posits a desire for sexual release as the prime motivation. Despite what many traditionalists seem to believe, gay men and women do not date and sleep with those of the same gender because we are "tragically broken" and unable to form "real and healthy" relationships with the opposite-sex, and thus just get our jollies where we can. Whether others want to believe it or not, real, spiritual, romantic love exists between gay men and women everywhere, and that poses a problem for this line of reasoning.

Gagnon tries to sidestep this problem by simply asserting that heterosexual coupling and marriage represents an image of God, one that homosexual coupling and marriage cannot hope to represent.
"'Male and female he created them' probably intimates that the fullness of God's 'image' comes together in the union of male and female in marriage (not, one could infer, from same-sex unions)."
There are two very serious problems with this view of the creation stories. First of all it implies that we are, in fact, not created in the image of God. We are actually created in a sort of half image of God, and only in the act of finding a mate (specifically an opposite sex mate) can we fully reveal the "true image" of God. This raises some grave questions about all those throughout scripture who went unmarried. Particularly one has to ask if this means that not only Paul, but Christ himself, never "truly" reflected the image of God because they never married.

But that is, I think, the least of the problems with this view. Even weirder, and in my opinion more dangerous, is what this says about God's nature in general. The Gospels have given to Christendom a vision of a wise, loving God who is infinitely more concerned with matters of the heart than matters of the flesh (heck even in the Old Testament God tells the Israelite that all their religiosity is worthless if their hearts are not his). But in Gagnon's view God is quite concerned with the flesh. If we, for arguments sake, take Gagnon's ideas about gender complementarity as true (which in some ways I do), then we are lead to believe that God is not primarily concerned with the spirits or hearts of a couple, but with whether there is a penis penetrating a vagina. Gagnon's view, taken to it's logical conclusion, implies that God cares more about who's penetrating who and with what, than with the hearts of those involved in the relationship. Somehow I doubt God is as obsessed with plumbing as Gagnon et. al.

Gagnon's treatment of the creation accounts not only relies on some major leaps of logic and the presupposition of knowledge about anonymous ancient authors, it also turns God into a capricious being who is more concerned with ensuring that penis enters vagina, and vagina only, then with hearts and minds. It is awkward to talk of God in this way honestly, to imagine the most supreme being in the universe thinking about and obsessing over how couples have sex. But unfortunately that is the God that Gagnon's exegesis of Genesis leaves us with.


Jim B. said...

I would hardly call Wink's editorial a "review". More of the conversation between Wink and Gagnon is here: It seems plain who is emoting and who has some idea what he's talking about.

I found the following portion of Wink's essay amazing:

"And not just homosexuals, but single persons of whatever orientation must also remain totally celibate, says Gagnon, till they marry or die."

Says GAGNON? Try, "Says the Christian Church since the Book of Acts."

And: "Nor are any of these sexually starved victims of a loveless religion permitted to fantasize about sexual involvement with another person."

Wow, this Gagnon guy is some kind of Puritan freak! No LUST?!?! Since when?

It is always difficult having a meaningful interaction with someone who characterizes those he disagrees with as "loveless" and "sexually starved". I'm sure it makes life easier for Wink to imagine folks like Gagnon (and me) as cold, sex starved, self-righteous cranks. You don’t have to take seriously people like THAT.

Wink quotes Gagnon from his chapter, The Witness of Jesus: ““‘Change or be destroyed‚’ was the staple of Jesus’ teaching,” says the unabashed Gagnon.” This jumped out at me because I just read through that section. It is a good example of not only lousy scholarship, but just plain dishonesty. Gagnon places “change or be destroyed” in quotation marks, because he is quoting E.P. Sanders (p.219) and interacting with his take that Jesus really didn’t take repentance all that seriously (at least compared to John the Baptist). While Sanders (and Wink, I’m sure) would dismiss repentance as a major emphasis of Jesus’ teaching, Gagnon is arguing that it “was A staple Jesus’ teaching”. Not “the” staple. Wink gets the quote wrong, and I have a hard time believing that was an accident.

John Blatzheim said...

I get where you would take issue with some of what Wink says towards the end of his essay. I've not read anything else of his, and I can see where he came off as a sexual libertine there. In Gagnon's counter piece he accuses Wink of just that. While I can't speak for anything else Wink has written, I think you are somewhat misinterpreting what he's saying here.

Here's the full quote:

"So what is the homosexual to do? This is where Gagnon’s position reveals itself for what it is: "a cruel abuse of religious power," as someone put it. The homosexual who wishes to be Christian is supposed to totally abstain from all forms of sex for the rest of his or her lifetime. There is no other possible choice, given Gagnon’s logic. And not just homosexuals, but single persons of whatever orientation must also remain totally celibate, says Gagnon, till they marry or die. But look at the scores of Catholic priests who have not been able to maintain celibacy even though they took vows to observe it. How much less likely are gays and lesbians to remain celibate when celibacy is imposed on them by others?

Nor are any of these sexually starved victims of a loveless religion permitted to fantasize about sexual involvement with another person."

While celibate people are mentioned, I think the main point he is making is that lifelong celibacy in general is a lot to ask of someone. And while I have some misgivings about Wink including single people in that list, as single people can date and marry if they wish, I do think he has a point about bringing about a singular Biblical love ethic to bear on the sexual mores of the day.

As Wink puts it, "[t]hat 'vague form of love' which Gagnon gags on is the future of the species." (By the way I found it histarical that Gagnon felt this line "demeans my family name"). Whether we like it or not, and I personally do, the nexus of our familial relationships has been radically altered in the last two centuries. We have shifted from an economic model that had dominated society for thousands of years to a romantic one. This shift, I think, ought to be taken seriously by the Church.

And Gagnon, in his response, I think makes a common mistake. He assumes it is all about sex. Traditionalists tend to do this, but the reality is you could castrate every last queer person in this country and there would still be gay couples, gay families a gay marriages. Homosexuality is not something, in the end, primarily about sex. Yes sexual attraction is something important to any romantic relationship, but in the end sex plays no more a role in gay relationships than straight ones.

Also Wink wasn't characterizing those he disagrees with as "loveless" and "sexually starved" he was characterizing those, such as queer people, who are forced into celibacy.

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