Friday, August 10, 2007

Gagnon I: Introduction

Robert Gagnon's The Bible and Homosexual Practice is probably the gold standard for resistance to blessing same sex unions and ordaining actively homosexual clergy in mainstream Christianity in the U.S. I emphasize "mainstream": by no credible stretch does Gagnon write as a fundamentalist reader of Scripture. For instance, speaking of assessing the Bible's credibility on homosexuality, Gagnon wishes to bring "the witness of nature" and "arguments from the realm of experience, reason, and science" in to join "the revelatory authority of the Bible" elevated "above all" (p. 41). It seems then Gagnon's is a text TEC should be focused on engaging in detail--if for no other reason than ecumenical interest. I would wager many intellectuals sympathetic with the Anglican "Global South" coalition are at least familiar with readings such as Gagnon's; the fact there has been little high-profile, public engagement is a lost opportunity for us--and for them.

The latter part of his Intro sets up his two theses (p. 37), roughly:

T1: Good evidence indicates the Bible unequivocally regards same-sex intercourse [SSI] as sin.

T2: There is no sound interpretation of the Bible or reason from science or experience for overriding the Bible's stand that SSI is sinful.

It's good to see Gagnon distinguish in T1 and T2 the issue of what the Bible most likely says about X and whether it is nevertheless credible about X. He does not make much of the distinction, but it shows again that he is'nt interpreting and arguing as a fundamentalist--who would likely not recognize the distinction. By seeing an issue here, Gagnon in effect sets a minimal standard for argument; i.e. it is not enough merely to show T1 is true to show an obligation against SSI.

His distinction clears some air, as it leaves an argument to be made for T2 by recognizing prima facie some things the Bible clearly says might not be binding if reasons from science or experience can be found to override them. That is, perhaps the authority of Scripture is not behind everything that the Bible clearly says, and we have an obligation to discern where Scripture carries authority given that "everywhere" is inadmissible. There is a good deal of circumspect good sense in accepting his distinction up-front, for church history is littered with accomodations of what the Bible says to what we seem to otherwise know (issues around Moses' authorship, moving the Sabbath around, geocentric cosmology, usury and divorce come to mind), and some of these accomodations may be permanent even if questionable--like the church's toleration of and participation in usury. But evaluating the church's manifold accomodations is another issue for another day.


I wish to draw your attention to a couple interesting points in Gagnon's Intro. First, notice his heavy stress on the complementarity of males and females; it is a cornerstone of his case in general:

A major aim of this book is to lift up in a more rigorous and scholarly way than has been done till now the argument of the complementarity of male and female in material creation as a key argument in Judeo-Christian opposition to same-sex intercourse. (p. 40)

He is not at all alone among contemporary Christian ethicists in taking this approach to evaluating the permissibility of SSI. Nevertheless, it is curious that he should stress this. Even granting that the Bible has such an argument in what it clearly says, it would not be binding on us unless it is compatible with our science and experience--and this on his own terms.

One might worry straight off that his approach will be hampered by considerations like this:

1. Complementarity requires an irreducible teleological orientation between the sexes.

2. An irreducible teleological orientation between the sexes is incompatible with our biological science.

Thus, 3. Complementarity is incompatible with our biological science.

Barring invocation of faith-based biology, he might have a problem here, as his case seems committed to a prima facie dubious conception of human biology.


What does "SSI" cover? Not just sexual intercourse, apparently, but for Gagnon "homosexual practice" (p. 37). What counts as sexual intercourse is fairly clear, but what counts as homosexual practice can get rather murky--hand holding? A longing gaze? A too-passionate kiss? Thoughts of homosexual sexual intercourse? Yet he clearly means to invoke the wider notion of homosexual practice. That may present a problem.

To see the problem, ask why, finally, Gagnon thinks SSI (widely contrued as homosexual practice) is forbidden; Gagnon is not as clear as he should have been, I fear. On the one hand, it seems that the moral issue might be disobedience, regardless of effects. Hence:

Thus same sex intercourse constitutes an inexcusable rebellion against the intentional design of the created order. (p. 37)

In that case, even if all the effects of SSI in every case were good, SSI would still be forbidden inasmuch as the act of SSI is morally vitiated by rebellion against God's will. What matters on this way of seeing things, morally speaking, is God's will. Gagnon would seem to be voicing a species of divine command theory.

But then, on the other hand, it seems Gagnon thinks SSI's deleterious effects are behind its being forbidden:

It degrades its participants when they disregard nature's obvious clues, and results in destructive consequences for them as well as for society as a whole. (p. 37)

Is this a kind of consequentialism about SSI? If SSI had good effects overall, would it be permitted? It is hard to see what makes SSI wrong from Gagnon's point of view; is it rebellion? Or are bad effects also needed in some measure? Very tentatively, I venture on Gagnon's behalf to say it is rebellion that makes SSI wrong; bad effects are strictly speaking unnecessary--for Gagnon, but they serve rather as signs enabling us to discover where there is rebellion. In other words, bad effects do not make an act wrong, but show that it is wrong. Gagnon seems to have a tacit principle in mind like this:

(P) Wherever there is rebellion against God's order, bad consequences follow.

The problem with this, it seems to me, is that SSI widely construed might not have bad effects at all. That is, it is possible that SSI widely construed excludes actual intercourse, or any kind of penetrative sex. In that case, although presumably rebellion would still obtain, it seems much more difficult to say bad consequences would follow. In effect, application to SSI widely construed makes (P) seem false, or at least rather dubious.


At 4:56 PM, Blogger Chris Ashley said...

Could you please clarify your phrase "irreducible teleological orientation between the sexes"? I take this to mean, roughly, "the sexes are meant for each other". Is that correct?

At 5:40 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

in biology, what appears purpose-driven to us in nature can be explained without referring to purposes.

Dumb causes without purposes operating according to general laws of nature suffice to explain natural outcomes. An additional appeal to a puropse is strictly otiose; it does no extra work that cannot be done without appeal to purposes.

Thus, even though we can't help but suppose teeth are for chewing or eyes are for seeing, those purposes played no role in the development of teeth and eyes.

The purposes to which teeth and eyes are put do not explain them; they are extrinsic. Instead, they are explained by law-governed causal chains in which purposes do not occur.

In that sense, when it comes to exlpaining teeth, the purpose for teeth--chewing--can be reduced to nonpurposive causes.

As for teeth, so for sex organs.

Gagnon needs--on the face of it--a non-reducible purpose for a select set of organs. And that--on the face of it--is bad science.

At 7:56 PM, Blogger Chris Ashley said...

Your reply reminds me of one of my favorite fundamentalist arguments, extracted from The Act of Marriage by Tim and Beverly LaHaye:

1) The clitoris serves no biological function except to provide women with pleasure.
2) God must therefore intend that the clitoris be used to give women pleasure.
3) Therefore, it is the duty of every Christian husband to pay attention to his wife's clitoris as they make love.

I invoke the LaHayes not only because their conclusion makes me smile, but to point out that the sort of Scottish Common Sense-inflected fundamentalism they practice is just as prone to that sort of argument as is Gagnon's natural-law-inflected Presbyterianism (?!).

Bad science? Not really-- it's more that it's not science at all.

Given their shared willingness to go there, I have to wonder whether Gagnon would actually be more willing than the LaHayes to accept any scientific evidence against his T2-- indeed, whether he ultimately makes the distinction he tries to make between T2 and T1. But I should wait for your continued explication, which I do, eagerly!

At 12:56 AM, Blogger Jon said...

Gender looks far more like a continuum when looking at physiology, and even at the genetic level it isn't strictly male/female.

I think strict complementarianism could be bad theology as well as bad biology, especially if it places an unbridgable divide between the nature of men and the nature of women.


At 1:43 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Jon, thanks for the point. Physiology is like surface grammar. E.g. "There is a dearth in the basket" might lead the unwary to open the basket and look for a pretty dearth; the deep structure, which may not be superficially visible at all, is a better guide to reality. In the case of gender, the deep structure is genetic. And as you say, genetics shows male and female are not polarities at all.

At 1:47 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


It's hard to read how seriously on a personal level Gagnon takes historical Biblical criticism, but he takes it seriously in his writing--and that is something the Anglican Communion should aspire to emulate, IMHO.

And that is enough to engage his case with scientific evidence; much of his book, after all, seems to consist of argument about using therapy to change orientation. That stuff seems to me to be the weakest and most troubling part of his book.

At 4:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At first glance Gagnon's premise seems to suffer from biologism.
A reductionist and disgarded social science methodolgy used to justify racism and discrimination.

At 6:06 PM, Blogger Jon said...

I would hesitate to say that genetics is the deep structure. The interplay between DNA, inherited protiens, and nutrition while in utero get rather complicated and can have very visible physiological results.


At 6:39 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


I'm conceding.

At 3:34 PM, Blogger Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for taking Gagnon on. Frankly, I find it hard to get very far beyond his premises, which I am glad to see you deconstruct expertly.


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