A couple of days ago, Thabiti Anyabwile put up a post on his Gospel Coalition blog entitled The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and “Gay Marriage” (warning: post contains graphic language).
There are a number of problems with this post. Before criticizing, however, I want to make a couple of points.
First, prior to reading this blog post, I knew relatively little about Anyabwile; however, the only contexts in which I had heard of him had been overwhelmingly positive. So I want to be clear that the negative things I say about this particular post are not intended to be an overall judgment of Anyabwile. I know too little to make such a judgment, and, aside from the problems with this particular post, everything else I have heard about him has been positive.
Second, many of those who have criticized this post have done so because they disagree with Anyabwile about the morality of gay sex. However, I agree with him that gay sex is contrary to God’s plan in creation, and have written extensively on the subject (see, for example, The Great Debate, this speech at Georgetown University, or, for a briefer statement, this speech at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). I share his concern about the way American culture has ceased to respect the sanctity of marriage, and have been defending the traditional Christian understanding of marriage for many years now.
(I will add that as a Lord of the Rings fan who loves to fly, the photo of the Air New Zealand 777 in painted in the Lord of the Rings livery was a pleasant distraction in an otherwise disappointing post.)
Having said all that, however, this post is one of the more problematic discussions of homosexuality I have seen in a serious Christian publication in recent years.
In a recent article in the Washington Post concerning Christian response to debates about transgendered people, Russell D. Moore wrote that addressing the issue “will require a church with a strong theological grounding, and a winsome pastoral footing.” The same point, obviously, applies to discussions of homosexuality and other controversial social issues.
Anyabwile’s stance on winsomeness is puzzling. He describes a conversation where an advocate for homosexual marriage presented his views in a thoughtful, winsome manner, and swayed most of the room to agree with him. Anyabwile then responded in what he recognized was a less winsome manner, and was not well received.
The lesson he draws from this is that he should have been more confrontational, because he thinks that “nice guys” are “definitely going to finish last.” This is a puzzling conclusion, because the “nice guy” in the conversation he describes was the gay marriage advocate, and he, not Anyabwile, succeeded in persuading his audience. In this case, at least, the “nice guy” finished first.
So even on the evidence that Anyabwile presents, his conclusion about how to approach the debate seems not just unwarranted but exactly wrong.
But this is merely a question of the effectiveness of strategies. The actual problem goes much deeper.
Anyabwile is a pastor. He has accepted God’s call and been entrusted with the responsibility to tend His sheep. Among those sheep are many who struggle with same-sex attraction or have joined the gay or lesbian community. Anyabwile spends a lot of time on political strategy (a task which is at best tangentially related to his calling as a pastor), but at no point in the article does he remember that the people he is talking about are created in God’s image, or that his primary calling is to reach out to them with the Good News of Jesus’s redemptive love for them.
Of course, Anyabwile is not the only Christian pastor who appears more concerned about politics than the Gospel when it comes to what he says about homosexuality. But most at least recognize the need to acknowledge the importance of offering pastoral support for those who struggle. At least in this blog post, Anyabwile doesn’t even offer lip service to the importance of balancing a “strong theological grounding” with a “winsome pastoral footing.”
The Wisdom(?) of Repugnance
Unfortunately, in addition to his pastoral failure, he also fails to offer his reader a solid theological grounding.
There is a kind of truth lurking in the background: a virtuous person will be attracted to good things, and will feel repulsion from bad things. Being attracted to bad things is a problem, because it makes you more likely to give into the temptation to do them. Being turned off by good things is also a problem, because it makes you less likely to want them in your own life.
So, as we grow in virtue, one of the things that happens is that we come to desire things that are good for ourselves and for others, and to be turned off by things that are bad.
Unfortunately, this kind of virtue is not common. Most of us, at least some of the time, desire things that are bad for us, and are repelled by things that are good for us. So if we are to progress in virtue, we need to learn to check our feelings against an objective standard. Sometimes, we have to resist desires that seem good, because we know (even if we do not feel) that they are bad. And sometimes, we have to force ourselves to do things that seem like they will be bad, because we know (even if we do not feel) that this is God’s plan for us, and we know (even if we do not feel) that God’s plan is good.
Therefore, a solid theological discussion of homosexuality will not depend either on the disgust that some people feel when they think of homosexual relations, nor the desire that others feel. We need a more objective standard.
For example, Christopher Roberts’ Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage, gives a careful account of the way that significant theologians in Church history, both Protestant and Catholic, have thought about the complementarity of male and female in marriage. By seeking to explain why sexual difference matters, Roberts gives a deep theological rationale not only for recognizing the good of marriage, but also for recognizing the need to resist the desire for sex between two men or two women.
Such a rationale addresses those of us so tempted as human beings created in God’s image, and by helping us to understand God’s plan for sexual difference, gives us reasons to resist desires which would be contrary to that plan.
If there are times when gay sex seems good to me, Roberts helps me to understand why it is not actually good, and gives me a reason to resist. But if something seems good to me, the fact that it seems bad to other people is no reason at all.
One of the best (though still dubious) defenses of the idea that our gut-level reactions give us important moral insight into right and wrong is found in Leon Kass’s essay, “The Wisdom of Repugnance” (PDF). However, Kass’s arguments need to be weighed in light of the uses he has made of them in other writings. For example, in The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (University of Chicago Press, 1999, pp. 148-149), Kass writes:
Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone—a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive….
[Eating] on the street—even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat—displays in fact precisely such lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. Hunger must be sated now; it cannot wait. Though the walking street eater still moves in the direction of his vision, he shows himself as a being led by his appetites. Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. Eating on the run does not even allow the human way of enjoying one’s food, for it is more like simple fueling; it is hard to savor or even to know what one is eating when the main point is to hurriedly fill the belly, now running on empty. This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if WE feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.
Perhaps, when you see a mother buy her child an ice cream cone, and see the child lick it as the family walks down the street on a summer day, you see America slouching toward Gomorrah in front of your very eyes. Or perhaps you feel a little nostalgic, remember happy childhood days, and wonder if Leon Kass’s heart is maybe a little more than two sizes too small.
The “Civil Rights” Question
One thing I think Anyabwile gets right is the fact that sexual activity and sexual relationships are morally significant in a way that skin color is not. The debate over same-sex marriage raises serious moral issues that were not raised by the debate over interracial marriage.
The odd thing, however, is that despite making this distinction, Anyabwile is actually trying to base the Christian response to gay marriage on exactly the same foundation—the sense that certain relationships are disgusting and therefore wrong—that motivated many of the opponents of interracial marriage.
The more that we focus on this kind of disgust with certain groups of people, the more our response to the gay rights movement is going to look like the irrational response of racists in the past.
If we want to show that our concerns about same-sex marriage are based on much more morally serious reasons than past objections to interracial marriage, we need to offer serious moral arguments, of the kind that Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George offer in What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense.
To deal with social issues as sensitive as the debate over same-sex marriage, we need an approach grounded in objective theological and philosophical arguments, and applied with pastoral sensitivity.
Note: Although it does not respond directly to Anyabwile, Carl Trueman’s post about The Yuck Factor also provides an excellent perspective on why disgust is a deeply flawed guide for Christian practice.