Monday, October 3, 2016

Christian ethics and homosexuality

Richard Swinburne gave the keynote address at a conference for the Society of Christian Philosophers in which he defended the traditional Christian position that homosexual acts are immoral, and apparently argued that those who experience same-sex attraction are disabled in some way. By some accounts he was inflammatory and insensitive in this; by other accounts he was only presenting claims that he published years ago in his book Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. The President of the SCP is Michael Rea (whose book World without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism is on my shelf waiting to be read) apologized for the hurt caused by the presentation and that Swinburne's views are not those of the SCP, which was founded to be inclusive of all those who consider themselves Christian. As Eleanor Stump pointed out, Rea didn't actually condemn Swinburne or his claims, or even criticize them. Nevertheless, there's a cyberstorm over whether Swinburne's lecture was out-of-bounds and whether Rea's apology was appropriate. I'll just send you to Rea's apology on Facebook that has numerous responses -- some positive, some negative -- some thoughtful some not so much -- and follow it up with William Vallicella's comments and links over at Maverick Philosopher.

Now in one of those links I read that in his presentation Swinburne also argued that the fetus is not really a person until 22 weeks gestation and so abortion should be allowed up until that stage. I understand why people with same sex attraction would be offended and hurt by someone claiming that homosexual acts are immoral, but it seems to me that someone who lost a fetus before 22 weeks gestation and considered it to be their child, their baby, would have just as much a claim to be offended and hurt by claims that their deceased child was never really a person. But such claims are made frequently, in academic conferences and in society at large, and I don't hear a comparable sense of outrage by it. And I think that's appropriate: in order to discuss these things, we have to be exposed to all sides of the issue, even those we consider offensive. I mean this is ethics. Ethical issues tend to involve situations that people are emotionally and personally invested in, and debating those issues is bound to hurt someone and hurt them deeply. But the idea that we shouldn't discuss those issues for that reason does not seem to me to be the right response, although I think any debate must be done with respect for those who disagree, even if you don't respect their position. I have to heavily qualify this though: I have my issues that I'm sensitive to too, and while I occasionally try to toughen myself up regarding some of them, most of the time I take the easier route and just try to avoid having to consider the possibility that I'm disastrously wrong. So I'm not in a position to judge anybody.

I'll supplement all this with a post by a gay Christian philosopher who writes something similar to what I expressed above and communicates how difficult it can be for him.

I’m an openly gay philosopher at a top-five program, and these issues are terribly important to me because I struggle daily to reconcile my sexuality with my faith. This stuff makes a difference to how I might lead my life, a phenomenon that is sadly rare in contemporary analytic philosophy. If a philosopher like Richard Swinburne has something to say, I need and want to know. I want to lead a Christian life, and I’ve grown to think that means living a celibate one. I’m not sure though! I want more debate. So, please, don’t scare any dissident philosophers away from the podium. ...  
I ask this not because views like Swinburne’s are without cost. When I read arguments like Swinburne’s, my heart sinks a bit because I worry that they might be sound. I miss my last boyfriend and sometimes regret telling him I couldn’t ever marry him in good faith because I suspect gay marriage to be incoherent and gay relations immoral. It’s f*cking rough. But, for all that, please don’t protect my feelings. For, as philosophers, our vocation is the pursuit of truth and the virtuous life—and that’s surely worth the sweat and tears.

I can't fathom the stress of having something as powerful as your sex drive be exclusively oriented in a way that conflicts with your deeply-held religious views. I say "exclusively" because of course I experience the occasional temptations to propagate my genetic material more widely than Christian morality dictates. But to have no legitimate sexual outlet would be terrifying. And I'm amazed at this man's willingness to unflinchingly pursue the rationale behind both sides of an issue, his willingness to follow the arguments wherever they lead, when one side of that issue would completely devastate him if it's true. So I am frankly in awe of the man who wrote the above quote. I want to sit at his feet and learn virtue from him. I can't even imagine having the inner strength necessary to choose celibacy as he did.

Incidentally, he goes on to say that, while he's accepted at his current institution, if he moved to another one, he would not come out of the closet -- about his Christianity. Not until he earned tenure. That reminded me of a recent comment by a Christian sociologist: "Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black. But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close."

1 comment:

Jamie Robertson said...

Thought-provoking post, thanks Jim.