Sunday, April 30, 2006

The weakness of Harding's latest critique: Part II

Earlier, I suggested we understand ECUSA's argument around TSHC 2.0 and elsewhere for blessing gay unions as having two parts, E1 and E2:

(1) Same-sex unions exhibiting effects of the Spirit are holy.
(2) There are same-sex unions exhibiting the effects of the Spirit.
Therefore, (3) There are holy same-sex unions.

(1) The church is permitted to bless holy unions.
(2) Some same-sex unions are holy.
Therefore, (3) The church is permitted to bless some same-sex unions.

I. A hypothetical opponent speaks up
Once the reader accepts E1(1), "the ball gets rolling" and the rest of the argument strikes me as rather difficult to resist. An opponent of blessing gay unions should, in my opinion, hold that
E1(1) is false. Sure, some gay unions exhibit effects of the Spirit--my opponent may well concede--but that in itself is insufficient to render the relationship holy.

The Spirit is at work in various relationships of uneven moral quality--even perhaps among the very worst recalcitrant sinners--moving them, say, towards repentance; still, the presence of the Spirit might not succeed in making the relationship holy. That is not to say, my careful opponent would interject, that holiness requires complete sanctification--surely sinful relationships can be holy, otherwise no human relationship here below would be holy. Rather, there are different conditions of human imperfection--e.g. one disposed toward sanctification, as in the contrite and repentant sinner, and another disposed toward damnation, as in the obstinate and hateful sinner.

My opponent would worry that a gay couple's relationship, regardless of how many fruits of the Spirit it exhibits, regardless of the presence of the Spirit in it, just cannot be holy. It is the wrong kind of relationship--and a gay couple confirmed in their relationship is courting disaster, and the church should have no part in enabling it.

I take Harding to be making a point like this when he writes:

Yet another set of ethical problems has to do with the destination of the ships. The ships can be well ordered individually, the can be proper in their relationships with each other and yet headed for a wrong destination. The shape of the argument presented in TSOHOC is that because the individual ships are well ordered and because the relationships between the ships are characterized by loyalty and decency and mutuality, the destination must be proper. This is yet again a form of question begging. How can it be shown that this form of human sexual relationship is God’s intention and teolos or destination for man and woman?

And it is a good point, obliquely raising the question What makes a relationship holy? or What counts as a holy relationship? Pace much of his commentary, he should be discussing the holiness required of us in our relationship with God and whether gay unoins can exhibit or are even consistent with such holiness.

II. A Reply
In cases of murder, bestiality, pederasty or incest I can point out the violence done. The last three cases are especially relevant, involving sexual sin. Their violence follows from their necessarily being exploitative--a daughter or son, a child, and an animal are not agents even capable of giving valid consent to sexual action with adults. In these cases, we have sufficient foundation to argue any such sexual act is a type of rape--an act whose violence I take to be self evident.

Where is there similar violence in active homosexual relationships? Typically, one answers in either of two ways: (1)They do violence by going against nature; (2)They do violence by going against the will of God. You see where I am going, I suspect. Answer (1) implies a teleology to sex organs; the very concept of such a teleology is incredible, and advancing it in the current climate of philosophy and science is a kind of bizzare special pleading, an atavistic return of the swamp thing. Though you may find some opponents of blessing gay unions saying "C'mon, can't you just see tab A was meant to go in slot B?", the heavy lifting is done by answers of type (2): the violence in homosexual activity is its defiance of God's will.

Again we return to holiness: what is God's will for our moral response to him? How in dedicating ourselves to God are we set apart as a result for his purposes?

III. On Holiness
And here is a very deep stratum of disagreement in ECUSA, deeper, I think, than disagreement over bibllical authority. One camp is content to read the divine will off Scripture, finding in it God's moral commands for us. There need be no reason for the particular commands God issues--the fact that he wills thus, even when he could have willed the contrary, is enough. What matters is not whether God has a reason or what his reason may be, but that God has commanded so. Our consequent obligation is simply absolute. I call this camp the Divine Command (Divco) camp.

According to the Divco group, there need be no special violence manifest in a gay union beyond its violating God's decree. Even the most loving gay couple, exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit and the cardinal virtues in its relationship, does violence in their relationship sufficient to evacuate it of holiness. The couple, disposed to defying God's will, is courting the disaster of damnation--the church should not bless such a union, but do whatever it can to break it up. So far as I can tell, Harding belongs to the Divco camp.

But there is another group that sees God's moral commands for us as stemming from his immutable nature rather than from sheer acts of will--the Human Nature or Nat camp. Given what we are, our essence as understood by the divine intellect, only a certain range of sexual relationships are consistent with human happiness. Just as, so to speak, man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man, so man was not made for sexual relationships, but sexual relationships for man. Which types of sexual relationships are conducive to human flourishing?

For the longest time it was thought that of course only heterosexual relationships were conducive to human flourishing--and this seemingly natural recognition informed the reading of Scripture. Grace was seen as completing nature--God's decreeing against homosexuality on account of human nature.

But today we have empirical evidence of homosexual relationships in which the parties flourish--this is the fact to which ECUSA is so eager to draw our attention. Barring radical, philosophical skepticism or some form of metaphysical idealism, we are oblligated to adjuct our understanding of human nature. Indeed, the actuallity of flourishing gay unions implies a possibility for such in our nature. We turn out--against past expectations--to be the kind of beings who can flourish in homosexual or heterosexual relationships.

Thus, if God's commands on human sexuality are rooted not in his mere will, but in his knowledge of our nature, he would not issue a blanket condemnation of gay unions. Indeed, such a divine command would go against nature.

I think the authors of TSHC belong in the Nat camp rather than the Divco camp. For the Nat camp, being in a gay union is no bar to holiness. The kinds of things that would undermine holiness in a gay union would also do so in a straight union--physical or emotional abuse, promiscuity, dishonesty, etc.

But who is correct? Are we to see Christian morality as primarily a matter of divine command, or grace complementing nature? Harding to my knowledge does not bring the issue up; this fissure in ECUSA cannot be healed by reading more Scripture closer, or by attending to scientific research in genetics--serious theology is required.


At 9:33 AM, Blogger Closed said...


This is cogent. I've said the same thing less eloquently elsewhere. You get to the heart of the matter here. I will point out with regard to fruits, that I've known a number of heterosexual married couples in my life who did not exhibit fruits of holiness, quite the opposite. So heterosexuality to my mind is not a guarantor of holiness. This is the little idol that continues to haunt this whole discussion. God makes holy, not heterosexuality.

Really its a divide between those who understand that Creation and Command cannot be separable, so that revelation and nature are not separable, and thus, if in the course of things through reason and the Revelation of Christ (remember not all of Scripture carries positive revelation of Christ) and those who separate Creation and Command (and hence sunder revelation and nature) so that we must simply obey irrespective of the fact that a command as presently interpretted causes harm. Commands were for our flourishing, if they cause harm they needs be revisited. The alternative really is what I suspect is at the heart of the matter different images of God, and many folks have a tyrant god lurking deep in the heart.

See James Alison's website, he's saying similar things from a Roman Catholic pov.

At 1:15 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

(1) Same-sex unions exhibiting effects of the Spirit are holy.
(2) There are same-sex unions exhibiting the effects of the Spirit.
Therefore, (3) There are holy same-sex unions.

Does anybody really accept E1(1)? Some aspects of most relationships display Christian virtues, such as compassion, generosity, mutual support, and so on. These aspects of the relationship display "the effects of the Spirit".

Scotist, you're using the Fallacy of Composition to completely beg the question.

At 2:00 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Thanks for the word about Alison; I'm looking forward to reading his stuff.

I agree with your point--God's commands have our happiness or flourishing in mind; they are not arbitrary decrees.

I suspect the tyrant deity-description seemilngly at the heart of much Anglican-right theology on this matter is really a hold-over from Constantine et al, when the Church took the risk of going imperial. It is a subtle form of paganism which we have accomodated for so long, extricating is proving extremely painful. Still, the Bride, the Church, is to admit no compromise.

At 2:06 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Granted, E1 as it stands gives nobody reason to believe premise (1) who did not before. That is not to say that premise (1) is false, though. I go on to bring out ECUSA's reason for (1) in my part III; in short, a same-sex union can participate in God's work of reconciliation, the very work through Christ that sets the Church apart. Doing so suffices to make th union holy, as it suffices to make the church holy.

It is not, then, merely a matter of niceness, everyone getting along, I'm OK-you're OK bourgeois nonsense that gets mistaken for piety, as Harding seems to think. The critical effect of the Spirit manifest in some same-sex unions that would make them holy is their doing God's work of reconciliation. That work is always carried on under the shadow of the Cross--it is done with Christ's agape or not at all.

At 1:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Answer (1) implies a teleology to sex organs; the very concept of such a teleology is incredible, and advancing it in the current climate of philosophy and science is a kind of bizzare special pleading, an atavistic return of the swamp thing.

Objection 1: What? Do you mean that contemporary science precludes saying that e.g. the purpose of the heavy fat layer of cetacians is to insulate their interior organs from the cold water temperature?

Objection 2: Under any known form of Christian belief, there is in fact a purpose for Creation; the teleology is attributed not to e.g. the deer's antlers but to God in his purposes for the deer. Attributing teleology to God is not atavistic, it is simply Vincentian orthodoxy.

Objection 3: Without recourse to anything but the observable, it is obvious that anal tissue is very poorly adapted to the demands of coitus, while vaginal tissue is particularly well-adapted to that activity. Witness the pervasive and chronic health problems in the gay community due to this physiological fact.

To dismiss this as "bizarre special pleading" is to reject not simply religious argumentation, but even argumentation based on evolutionary theory, since such dismissal precludes even the crucial evolutionary notion of superior adaptation.

At 3:01 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


(To 1)
This may come as a shock, but contemporary science does not use an unreconstructed concept of teleological causation. Purpose-talk is paraphrase, and does not imply, say, final causation. Fat layers et al for scientists are natural adaptations, not results of planned design.

(To 2)
Your "point" here is just sloppy. To say there is a purpose to creation does not imply there is a purpose to sex-organs. You have to eliminate the possibility of parts to creation that neitehr impede nor serve its overall purpose--let's see your proof.

(To 3)
Thios point is just plain stoopid. Well-adapted structures formed under natural selection can have a history where they began as poorly adapted--so vaginas might have been poorly adapted to sexual reproduction way, way back; that obviously would not have made sexual reproduction immoral.

But the deeper problem with your "objection" is that you move from natural adaptation to moral obligation without an argument--what bearing does the fact of something's adaptation have to do with its pemissiblity?

You and Harding--you guys need more practice stringing premises together.

At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

None of these responses actually address the objections. I am shocked, shocked, to discover...

And as to natural adaptation to moral obligation, the Christian view is that the adaptation is shaped by the will of God, rather than vice versa.

As to a purpose for sex organs, all the rest of your discussion presupposes that such a purpose exists [have you changed your mind again already?]; we are simply examining them to see if their characteristics assist us in determining anything of interest about that purpose. And, in fact, they do.

And who on earth mentioned "unreconstructed concepts of teleological causation"? That's utterly irrelevant in the context you originally used the term.

You may have the last word...


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