Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Gagnon II: Jesus (An Exercise in Deconstruction)


In his Intro, Gagnon writes

The focus of this book on same -sex intercourse or homosexual practice as opposed to homosexual orientation is a reflection of the Bible's own relative disinterest toward motives or the origination of same-sex impulses. What matters is not what urges individuals feel but what they do with these urges, both in their fantasy life and in their conrete actions. (p. 37-8)

Gagnon here is saying the feeling or desire for SSI is not itself sinful--it is not "what matters"--according to the Bible. The Bible, Gagnon seems to be saying, is focused on deliberate actions both internal, e.g. having to do with "fantasy life", and external.

He sounds here a bit like those who stress the distinction between those who are chaste homosexuals and active homosexuals, and who then go on to say only the active homosexuals are sinful--on account of acting on their desires. For instance, you might hear someone say it's not ordaining a homosexual that is wrong, but ordaining an active homosexual.

It is no wonder, then, Gagnon says

It is questionable whether Jesus thought 'committing adultery in one's heart' was as serious an offense as 'commiting adultery in one's body' (the implied parallel). (p. 207)

Jesus, especially in Matthew, threatens to undermine Gagnon's focus on deliberate action "with his stress on interior attitude" (p. 206). As Gagnon notes in the course of criticizing "the myth" of a "sexually tolerant Jesus",

On matters relating to sexual ethics, Jesus often adopted stricter, not more lenient demands than most other views of his time....his expectations regarding sexual purity, in some respects at least, exceeded the expectations of both the Torah and of traditions prevailing in Jesus' day. (p. 197)

Jesus seems to point out (e.g. Matt, 5:27-8; 23:25-6; Mark 7:15; Luke 11:39-41, cited by Gagnon on pp. 205-6) that being perfect and holy as our heavenly Father is perfect and holy extends beyond getting the actions right and obeying rules; Jesus calls on "interior attitudes" to be perfect and holy as well. That's not to say obeying getting action right is unnecessary; rather, it is insufficient.

Thus, in light of Jesus' stringent conception of righteousness, Gagnon's focus--announced in the Intro--on practice and action just does not go far enough. The mere feeling or desire for SSI, construed as an "interior attitude", should count as sin by Jesus' criteria if indeed homosexual action is sinful. Of course, Gagnon shows little sign of equivocating on his opinion that homosexual action--interior or exterior--is sinful. Maybe the internal sin is not as severe on Gagnon's account as the external, but it is a sin nevertheless.

What's the trouble for Gagnon--aside the merely formal one of a minor inconsistency? So what? After all, on its face Gagnon's inconsistency could hardly comfort partisans of GC2003.

Well, I think it shows that given Gagnon's reading of the Bible, the distinction between "homosexual" and "active homosexual" is indefensible in our argument about the sinfulness of homosexuality.

Some of those upholding the distinction have said the inactive homosexual could count as "chaste" by refraining from homosexual practice. But I think on Gagnon's reading of the synoptic Jesus we may see why this is to no avail: from Jesus we hear (on Gagnon's reading) that even homosexual interior attitudes can count as sinful regardless of chastity with regard to practice. Action's not required for sin. Or, harsher: the inactive/active homosexual distinction is merely political, without Scriptural theological integrity.

Well, where is the problem in all this for Gagnon? "So much the worse for gays" you might say.
The problem for Gagnon emerges from the moral equivalence between gay desire and other states of sin that follows on both (1) Gagnon's premise that the Bible unequivocally regards homosexual practice as sinful and (2) the rejection of a relevant distinction between active and inactive homosexuals. That is, gay desire emerges as sinful in itself, regardless of interior or exterior action; in effect, no state of "gay desire" is permissible.

In this regard--for a more consistent Gagnon--being in a state of gay desire is worse than being in a state of adulterous heterosexual desire. The adulterer can repent by, say, following Paul's advice and directing the same type of desire toward a spouse, in which case the desire ceases to be sinful. Gagnon cannot say such an expedient is open to homosexuals. Gay desire--let alone action--emerges as bad through and through, like the lust to commit murder, desire to torture innocents or desire to commit pederasty. Thus, Gagnon is committed, whether he likes it or not, to (A):

If one is in a state of gay desire, one sins for that reason alone.

Here things get interesting. Many of those sympathetic with GC2003 do not buy into (A) at all, on grounds of experience. They may know gay couples or have homosexual relatives, and on that basis have a very hard time seeing how mere gay desire itself is sinful; they discern the effects of the Spirit rather than the effects of sarx in the Christian lives of ther gay comrades. That is, they attest to the truth of (B):

There are persons in states of gay desire who do not sin for that reason alone.

What is so interesting about (B), I think, is that one can gather up as evidence for it observations from the lives of chaste homosexuals. In effect, (B) offers the prospect of strong-arming certain critics of GC2003 into compliance, provided their respect for logical consistency. The chaste homosexual on (A) is sinful just as the active homosexual is--chastity makes no relevant difference. Surely, however, those conservatives who extolled the option of chastity for homosexuals left open the real possibility of their exhibiting effects of the Spirit from being in their chaste state--otherwise they would not have left open the option. That is, conservatives who extolled chastity would have to agree with (B) just as much as partisans of GC2003 would.

Of course, (A) and (B) are logically inconsistent; given (B), (A) cannot be true. From the falsehood of (A), it follows that interior states of homosexual desire are not sinful in themselves. What else do you suppose follows?

Consider (C):

If an action following on a type of desire is sinful, then the type of desire is sinful.

I think Gagnon's treatment of Jesus gave us strong reasons to assent to (C). But we have just seen that (A) is false, implying that homosexual desire is not sinful in itself. It follows, with (C), that homosexual action following on homosexual desire is not--for that reason alone--sinful.

The permissibilty of homosexual practice follows from Gagnon's reflections on Jesus, though Gagnon did not see this, and he would not--I gather from his recent critique of the Lutherans--assent peacefully to my reasoning.

To review the argument concisely:

Gagnon is compelled to hold(A): If one is in a state of gay desire, one sins for that reason alone. For, as his exposition of the synoptic Jesus on sexual morality turned up, textual considerations support (C): If an action following on a type of desire is sinful, then the type of desire is sinful.

But experience yields up good reasons for (B): There are persons in states of gay desire who do not sin for that reason alone. Gagnon admits the validity of evidence from experience, as we saw earlier: sound Biblical interpretation should not contradict what is known from experience.

But (B) and (A) are inconsistent, implying that (A) is false as we hold (B) true.

Moreover, given (B), homosexual desire in itself is not sinful. Thus, from (C) it follows homosexual practice is not sinful from its being homosexual alone.


At 6:56 PM, Blogger Christopher said...

Please make some further distinction in terms. You are chaste as a married man; I consider myself chaste as a partnered man. Celibacy is the requirement conservatives make of homosexuals, not simply chastity or rather the only chastity they can recommend for us is celibacy. It's an important distinction and one that has terrible consequences for those of us for whom celibacy is a terrible burden. I recommend any heterosexually married person who recommends celibacy to a homosexual person try it for a year, and then go read a little Luther on the matter.

As far as your points they seem to make sense. What Gagnon and others are saying is that homosexual desire can only be sin and lead to sin. Some conservatives, however, suggest that the desire is broken heterosexuality. How do you deal with this?

At 7:36 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Christopher Evans,

"Chastity" for opponents of GC2003 generally would imply sex only being permissible inside monogamous heterosexual marriage. Only outside marriage would chastity imply complete abstention from sexual activity. In that sense, I think you're using "celibacy" the way I use "chasity".

Of course you are right; this amounts to an unfair double-standard for those not heterosexual, with ghastly practical implications.

As for Gagnon, he wanted to focus only on action, and leave desire out of it. But I tried to show that he can't. And more: that his own reading of the synoptic Gospels showed he can't.

The righteousness Jesus requires, esp. in Matthew, reaches right into the very depths of the person, into desire itself.

The implications are startling, I think. If expereince shows homosexual desire, as for instance in a chaste or celibate gay person, is not sinful, then it follows that homosexual practice is not sinful in itself.

At 7:39 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

The "deconstruction" part comes in rather mundanely: turning Gagnon's text against him, and showing how some consistent critics of GC2003 at least--on the grounds of their own premises--should be led to accept the blessing of SSUs.

At 3:44 PM, Blogger bls said...

How does James Alison's take on this fit in, Scotist? It seems to me that you're talking about very similar things. His is from the Roman Catholic point of view; I'm not sure if yours wouldn't be sort of the same idea, but from a sort of Anglican, more-emphasis-on-scripture point view?

I wrote a post about it awhile ago, and a link to his full talk is at this page.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger bls said...

Sorry, there are two posts on that page; I'm talking about the first one only. Here's a direct link to it.

At 5:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have always read the text of "lusting in the heart" similarly to "who among you will cast the first stone" as not indicative of a more righteous or strict Jesus but as emblematic of a most infinite mercy.
Both were rebukes to the harsh law and the self righteousness that accompanies it. Not one of us, the saintly or the sanctimonous is in a position to judge.

At 11:19 PM, Blogger Contarini said...

Are you really meaning to endorse the Calvinist view that an involuntary desire (to which the will does not consent) is culpable? I think this is a disastrous error and I'm surprised to see you affirming it. Sin exists in the will, period. A physical desire or psychological tendency to which the will does not consent is not sinful in the sense of being culpable. Disordered sexual desire (leaving aside for the moment the question of whether same-sex desire is intrinsically disordered) is sinful in a secondary sense, inasmuch as it disposes one toward sin. But we all have desires that dispose us toward one sin or another. That's simply part of the fallen human condition. I for one agree with the Council of Trent that in the baptized (i.e., in those in whom divinely infused righteousness is present and is the governing principle of their lives) there is nothing properly speaking sinful except what they freely choose.

The interpretation of Jesus' words concerning lust as a condemnation of those who feel involuntary desire is, to put it frankly, a brutal and dehumanizing misinterpretation of Our Lord's words, which perhaps does more to terrorize the conscience than anything else. Jesus is clearly speaking about an act of will, albeit an internal one. He is not ascribing culpability to involuntary desire alone.

In Christ,


At 11:57 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Thanks for the link to the James Alison article. You are right--he and I seem to be saying much the same thing. That came as a very happy surprise to me, as the piece you reference is really quite good! He goes a bit deeper when he talks about esse/being, but I am on board with him. Very good stuff.

At 12:06 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

seamus--you have to be right, at least in the sense that as Jesus is God and God is simple, perfect justice cannot exist in Jesus apart from infinite mercy.

Maybe we could read Matthew there as showing what complete perfection (justice or righteousness) requires and noting we caould only fulfill it on our own imperfectly and at the cost of hideous self-mutilation. What would be left after we cut away all the bodily instruments of sin? A Dorian Gray kind of moment: left to our own devices, the effort to achieve righteousness defaces image of God in humanity.

Then the point would be (?) that we are not called to do achieve righteousness by our own devices, but by the sacrifice of Jesus. In Jesus, the flawless coincidence of righteousness and mercy is expressed in the Cross and Resurrection, the foundation of our redemption.

Now what that means--substitutionary atonement/ ransom/ Girardian or Abelard-type exemplarism or...? Another issue.

At 1:09 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


I did not mean to refer to occurrent states of involuntary desire--though of course even they could be culpable if achieved, and of course they can be.

Sure, sin exists in the will.

But here is where we diffet.Sin and culpable action are not coextensive; sin is the wider notion. Anything in a person that undermines and works against that
person's relationship with God counts as sin. Sin has to go; it ought not continue, and will not be permitted in heaven.

The anthropology implicit in your objection so far as I can tell seems to overlook the fact humans are not born effective rational agents. They acquire morally relevant psychological dispositions before attaining thecapacity to deliberate as you or I would over whether to undertake an action. That is obvious, no?

Quite apart from genetics--a red herring here--a girl may develop a settled disposition to violence, a boy may develop a disposition to immoderate drug use
--picture dispositions to lying, molestation, sadism, etc. none of which involved deliberation or choice. Such dispositions--you will agree--are morally relevant: vices. They may not be culpable, but they still manage to actively distance the person from God and cause much pain.

Do you think the boy disposed to homicide, quite apart from choices he made (picture a type of kid like a young Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer--I do not know if they were so disposed, but that type fits the model) is fit for heaven with the involuntary lust to murder?

That's not like Downs or a birth defect--those things are not morally relevant, even if they would be corrected in heaven.

Say he dies as a boy without accepting Jesus--far from it; he's disposed to vivisect Jesus, say. Is he fit for heaven? No, obviously not--even though he made no bad choices.

But according to you, because he was involuntarily disposed, he is innocent. Is that right? It seems in restricting sin to the culpable, you've lost track of something important.

At 1:27 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

To put this in your terms:

You seem to concede the point when you talk about the fallen human condition.

You say:

"Disordered sexual sinful in a secondary sense, inasmuch as it disposes one toward sin."

That is a huge concession; it makes your case very difficult if you say there are involuntary desires to sin--to which we do not consent--that are sinful in some sense. That is a hard road to travel. But you have to travel it, no?

Look, you say:

"But we all have desires that dispose us toward one sin or another. That's simply part of the fallen human condition."


The fallen human condition has been called "Original Sin". There is along tradition here. NOT just Calvin--trust me on this. Baptism has even been pictured as guessed it:


You want to drop original sin or baptismal generation? Who'd be the Big Bad Lousy Protestant then? No, no--of course you don't.

But then we agree: there is involuntary sin, to which the will does not assent. Do we have to argue about this any more?

Here's the kicker: say the baptized sin. It happens--can they then have involuntary desires to which they do not assent that are sinful? I say Yes.

Either way, your bit about "a brutal and dehumanizing misinterpretation"--that's not very nice, esp. seeing that you agree with my interpretation, at least for the unbaptized. Do you take it back?

At 1:57 PM, Blogger Christopher said...


Just so you know I mentioned at the Anglican Centrist a past post of yours in which you address Hay's work.

At 2:09 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Christopher; we'll get to that other guy after Gagnon.

Hays seems to have some very interesting and laudable general principles worth hanging on to, even if he does not always emply them well.


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