The argument of procreation: also pretty problematic

In my last post I pointed out an oft-unnoticed flaw in one of the arguments Christians sometimes use to support the belief that homosexual sex is sinful. While I’m at it, here’s another argument Christians sometimes use to the same end, and a reason that argument is also highly suspect.

The argument in question today runs roughly as follows:
1. God’s primary–or perhaps only–intended purpose for human sexual activity is procreation.
2. Therefore the only acceptable forms of sexual activity are those that can potentially result in the fertilization of an egg by a sperm.
3. Therefore the only acceptable sexual activity is between one woman and one man. If two women have sex, there are eggs but no sperm, and if two men have sex, there are sperm but no eggs, so in either case procreation cannot happen.

This argument comes up especially frequently in debates over same-sex marriage, and is generally cited by those who want to argue that marriage should be restricted to couples who are capable of having children (or who would be capable of having children if all their procreative organs were functioning properly; advocates for this position usually ignore the plight of couples wherein one or both partners is infertile). But quite apart from any other reasons you or I may have for disagreeing with this argument, it holds a few implications that many people, even those who believe homosexual sex is wrong, would still find untenable.

By the logic of this argument, if the only acceptable forms of sexual activity are those that can potentially lead to the procreation of children, then not only homosexual sex but also all of the following are also inherently sinful:
— Heterosexual sex that does not include coitus
— Heterosexual sex in which the woman is past menopause
— Heterosexual sex in which either partner is known to be infertile
— Heterosexual sex at any stage in the woman’s menstrual cycle at which conception is impossible
— Heterosexual sex with birth-control pills, condoms, or other contraceptives

At this point, some Christians might sputter in protest and point out that heterosexual sex in which the woman is past menopause is clearly not sinful, if the example of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18 is any indication. Fair enough–but God specifically told them that he was going to give them descendants, which is not something he says to the vast majority of post-menopausal women; Abraham and Sarah are a special exception to the norm. Logic demands that a post-menopausal woman remain celibate (unless God specifically tells her otherwise), or else that the sex-is-only-for-procreation argument is rubbish.

Along similar lines, Christians will sometimes use the story of Onan in Genesis 38:8-10 to argue against masturbation and other non-coital forms of sexual activity. Onan’s brother Er had died without a son, so Onan’s responsibility was to have sex with Er’s widow Tamar so that the firstborn son could be an heir for Er. Onan had sex with Tamar but pulled out, in order that a child would not be conceived, and as punishment God struck Onan dead.

But the use of this story to argue against non-coital forms of sexual activity overlooks the reason Onan was supposed to have sex with Tamar in the first place, which was to conceive a child who could be Er’s heir. Onan knew full well that, legally, the child would not be his–and he also knew that Er’s property would revert to him (that is, to Onan himself) if Er didn’t have a son. Thus the reason Onan incurred God’s wrath was not that he engaged in an unacceptable form of sexual activity but that, for selfish reasons, he refused to fulfill his legal and moral obligation to his deceased brother. Christians who think masturbation, oral sex, or other non-coital forms of sexual activity are sinful may still be able to build a case, but they’ll have to look elsewhere for their arguments; the story of Onan presents a pretty flimsy one.

As for the two arguments against homosexual activity that I’ve discussed in yesterday’s and today’s posts, the position those arguments are meant to support may be right or it may be wrong–and there are plenty of people, even Christians, on either side–but those arguments are too severely flawed to keep using. Let’s all agree to knock it off, shall we?

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On sexuality, human incompleteness, and ribs

In my last post I used the occasion of Fred Phelps’ death to comment on our tendency as Christians to use “Love the sinner, hate the sin” rhetoric to define our positions on certain kinds of sins and those who commit them, but then to forget to actually see the people who are doing the things we don’t like. I neglected to mention that this particular failing is not limited to Christians who are opposed to homosexuality, though they’re the ones most likely to use the “Love the sinner, hate the sin” line; I’ve heard plenty of people write off racists as unworthy of human consideration because of their racism, for example. That’s not really my point today, but maybe I’ll write a post about it eventually.

No, my point today has to do with an implication–which I hope is not intentional on anyone’s part–of an argument some Christians use to support their opposition to homosexual activity.

The argument is rooted in the account of the creation of the first man and woman, found in Genesis 2. Briefly, the story is that God creates the man out of clay, then takes one of the man’s ribs and makes the woman from it. As Genesis 2:24 explains, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV). This “becoming one flesh” is generally understood to refer to the sexual union.

Now, plenty of Christians take the Genesis account of creation literally, and plenty take it allegorically or in some other figurative manner. I’ve heard this argument used by people in both camps, though, so I’m addressing anybody who uses it.

The argument itself runs like this:
1. God made woman out of a part of man.
2. Therefore, man without woman is like a man with a rib missing, and woman without man is like a rib without the rest of the person.
3. In the “becoming one flesh” of the sexual union, a man-without-a-rib is physically united with a rib-without-a-man, forming a complete person.
4. But (3) is only true in heterosexual sex. When two men have sex with each other, the union is between two men-without-ribs, and when two women have sex with each other, the union is between two ribs-without-men. Either way, the result of homosexual sex–or, for that matter, sexual activity involving more than two persons, regardless of their sexes–is not a complete person but some unnatural monstrosity. (Christians don’t usually phrase it that way, but that more or less captures what they’re thinking.)
5. Therefore, the only form of sexual union that makes people complete, as God created us to be, is sex between one man and one woman. And since the Bible makes clear here and elsewhere that God intends marriage as the only proper context for sexual union, the one man and one woman had better be each other’s spouses.

Quite apart from any other reasons you or I may have for disagreeing with this argument, one of the reasons I’m convinced it does not accurately reflect God’s creational intent for us is what it implies about singleness.

See, the argument only works by positing that a man who has not become one flesh with a woman or a woman who has not become one flesh with a man is incomplete. But that means that, so long as I remain unmarried (assuming I follow the no-sex-with-anyone-you’re-not-married-to rule), I remain short a rib. I remain incomplete. And the only way for me to rectify that problem is to marry a woman and become one flesh with her.

Now, I’m plenty eager to do just that, when the time is right and the relationship is right. But am I less than fully human in the meantime? And what of men and women who remain single by choice or out of some necessity–are they doomed to a life of incompleteness?

By the logic of the argument outlined above, the answer to both these questions is yes.

Through much of its history, the Church, at least in the West, has vaunted the celibate life as “perfect” and denigrated the married life as merely “permitted.” But, thanks in part to its embrace of certain ideologies concerning sex, many contemporary Western churches have swung the other way, and are now putting far too much pressure on the single members of their congregation to marry. Pressure and haste are hardly ingredients for stable, happy marriages, but huge numbers of Christian twenty- and thirty-somethings are nonetheless desperate to find partners and tie the knot as soon as they possibly can. There are other reasons for this pressure as well, but it’s hard not to think that one significant factor is the knowledge, drummed into them over the years, that to be single is to be incomplete, less than whole, less than fully human.

That’s something I’m not willing to say about any human person.

What Fred Phelps’ death makes me think of

To anyone who’s been keeping track, yes, in keeping with my Lenten project, I was due to post yesterday. A combination of some disappointing news and the need that news created to have a beer with a buddy of mine scuttled the blogging plan. Not that I’ve been terribly rigorous with it in the first place, but hey.

(Also, if that’s you, I’m happy you’re reading my blog, but you might want to find a more worthy hobby than tracking the regularity of my posting. Might I suggest learning an instrument, taking a drawing class, or finally reading that book that’s been on your shelf for six years?)

Anyway, in the spirit of commenting on current events for a change, Fred Phelps, founder of the small but infamous Westboro Baptist Church and notorious spewer of anti-homosexual vitriol, died on Wednesday.

As many problems as I had with the guy’s message and his tactics, I can’t say his death makes me happy as such; he was a human being, after all, however little the rest of us might like to admit that fact. I can’t exactly say I’m crushed with grief, either, though; the world doesn’t really need anyone perpetuating a message of hate the way he and his followers did. (Incidentally, Phelps’ death doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the Westboro folks will get any quieter or more loving, so I’m not assuming we’ve heard the last of them.) If anything, I might hope and pray that, sometime before his death, Phelps repented of the hate and judgmentalism he had spent so many years spreading. Whether he actually did is, of course, between him and God now.

But there’s a point I want to make about the way Christians, especially American Protestants of a more conservative or evangelical bent, think about homosexuality. Certainly an awful lot of us reject the hate and judgment spewed by the Westboro crowd. Whatever any given Christian may think about same-sex attraction, same-sex romantic or sexual relationships, and same-sex marriages and unions–and there’s plenty of debate about these things, even among evangelicals, despite media portrayals to the contrary–most Christians agree that hating people runs contrary to the message of Jesus.

The refrain often heard among Christians opposed to homosexuality is that we are to “love the sinner but hate the sin.” That is, Christians are meant to oppose actions which are sinful, evil, morally wrong, and/or contrary to the precepts laid out in the Bible, but at the same time to welcome, embrace, serve, and care for the people who do those actions.

Whatever one may think of “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” the distinction is often lost on outside observers. One reason, I suspect, is a legacy of the identity politics adopted in the 1980s and 1990s by some advocates for the LGBTQ community. Some folks identified so strongly with their sexual orientation or sexual preference that they effectively erased any distinction between what they do and who they are. What I do is so entwined with who I am, the logic goes, that if you hate what I do, you do hate me; loving me requires loving and accepting what I do. And the media attention given to people who spoke this way cemented the association, so that even today a great many Americans assume that loving (or hating) a person’s actions must be part and parcel of loving (or hating) the person.

But another reason, and for my purposes today a far more important reason, lies in the attitudes of Christians themselves–ourselves, I should say, since, although I’m trying to stop thinking this way, sometimes I still fail. The problem is that, when we look at a person whom we identify with a certain kind of sin (usually but not always one or another sexual sin), too often all we see is the sin. We tell ourselves that we love the person and it’s only the sin that we hate, but it’s awfully hard to love people whom you don’t see even when you’re looking right at them. And it’s also hard to convince people that you’re distinguishing between who a person is and what a person does when all you see, and consequently all you react to, is what the person does.

Now, as I say, there are Christians who fall along a whole spectrum of viewpoints about same-sex attraction, homosexual activity, same-sex unions, and other issues related to sex and sexuality. As though to illustrate precisely this point, a few years ago a group of Christians at a gay pride parade in Chicago took a very different approach from that of the nearby protesters by apologizing to the gay community for their harsh, judgmental treatment. And I’m not trying to settle the discussion today, or even stake out a position in it. What I’m trying to say is that, whatever you may think about issues of sexual attraction, sexual activity, or sexual identity–and, for that matter, whatever you may think about people who disagree with you on those issues–“Love thy neighbor” still applies. And loving thy neighbor requires seeing thy neighbor, even if thou must first train thyself to look.

It’s that sort of training that has allowed me to see, among other things, that no matter how objectionable, even evil, I may have found his actions, Fred Phelps was still a human being.

On grief, grad school, and the unhelpfulness of Christian rock

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine lost her sister after a long illness.

My friend is grieving, as anyone would be, but she says she’s slowly starting to pick up the threads of her normal life again. She’s pretty self-aware and emotionally intelligent, so I expect that through this grieving process she’ll maintain a pretty good sense of when she feels ready to take up certain things again, let go of certain things, and so on. One of the things she’s been struggling with is returning to church, because being in the nave where her sister’s memorial service was held is still difficult for her. She wants to come back, I know–and she’ll get there soon enough–but she hasn’t yet felt like she’s ready to sit in the pews again.

Somehow my friend’s experience of grieving her sister, maybe coupled with the fact that it’s Lent, has gotten me thinking about a problem I have with the Christian music industry.

Perhaps another time I’ll tell the story of how and why I got into Christian music and then how and why I stopped being so enthusiastic about it. My point today, however, is something a bit different.

My point today is that it bothers me how most Christian music seems to insist that sorrow, grief, frustration, anger, despair, and even mild melancholy aren’t legitimate things to feel.

I noticed that phenomenon sometime around when I first started paying attention to heavy metal. I’d never liked metal that much in the past, but somehow after a couple of years in grad school, I suddenly stumbled across bands like Iron Maiden and Dio and Judas Priest and said, “Hey! I get this stuff now!” One of the things I noticed very quickly about that music, especially once I started paying attention to the lyrics, is the way it made me feel like there were other folks out there who sometimes felt as frustrated and angry and alienated as I was starting to feel.

Now, I still had my Christian music, and I also still had the ’60s and ’70s rock on which my parents had raised me, and those things all had their place. But the Hollies and the Eagles, much as I like them, were never quite dark enough for the worst days of grad school, and Christian rock always seemed in too much of a hurry to bludgeon me with hope and encouragement.

You may argue, of course, that following Jesus should mean a life full of hope and joy and peace, so Christian music should cultivate those things. Fair enough, I suppose, but I  felt like most Christian recording artists were trying so hard to push me toward what I should feel that I wasn’t allowed to acknowledge how I did feel first.

I’m no psychologist, but it seems fairly commonsense to me that moving from a bad, dangerous, or destructive emotional place to a good, healthy, and life-giving one first requires acknowledging and accepting where you are. Then, having done that, you can move on.

There’s certainly a good and valuable place for encouraging, uplifting Christian music, of course; the problem was that that seemed to be the only kind there was, and some days that wasn’t the kind I needed. Granted, once in a while you’d hear a song like Caedmon’s Call’s “Center Aisle” or the Newsboys’ “Elle G.” (Grief over a suicide is, apparently, the rare occasion on which Christian bands are allowed to express anguish without somehow resolving it into joy.) But mostly? No, mostly Christian music seemed like it was trying to rush me toward the happy stuff; it wasn’t interested in helping me get my bearings on where I was first. The implicit message was that the frustration, the anger, the sorrow, the despair, and whatever else I felt were, if not signs that I was a bad Christian and insufficiently faithful (though maybe they were that, too), at least moods to be snapped out of as quickly as possible. The strategy was not one of healthy acceptance and moving on; it was one of sheer denial.

This problem wasn’t the bands’ fault, necessarily, or at least not theirs alone. A big part of the problem, no doubt, is the publishers of the Christian music who feel like they have to keep the lyrics and themes and moods within certain limits so they don’t offend or scare away their core market. Likewise the arbiters of Christian pop culture, the magazines and reviewers and such, who advise Christian consumers on what to listen to and what not to bother with.

And a huge part of the problem is us. We American Christians are terrible at dealing with grief, anger, and other emotions that we sometimes call “negative,” and we get uncomfortable when we’re asked to sit in the room with those things and stare them in the face for a while. We’d rather sweep those things under the rug and pretend that the “Jesus makes your problems go away” story we like to tell ourselves is actually true.

Now, I don’t know what kind of music my friend who just lost her sister typically listens to, although I know she gravitates toward Christian music much of the time. In any case, this post is more about what the event triggered in my head than about what she does or ought to do. But it makes my friend sad and probably also angry that she won’t get to see her sister again until the Resurrection, and the best way to find healing is first to acknowledge what’s broken. Most of the Christian music I’m aware of will be very good at helping her move on after she’s done that, but I doubt it’ll do much good before then.

What I’m doing for my Lenten vacation

In a little over an hour I’ll be heading to church to receive a smudge of ash on my forehead.

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent for Christians in the various Western churches. (Our brothers and sisters in the Eastern churches follow a different liturgical calendar .) For me, as for many Christians in the U.S., this Lent will be a season of repentance, fish fry dinners, and giving something up for the next six weeks or so.

Now, I should state for the record that neither the Presbyterian tradition of my upbringing nor the Anglican tradition of my present affiliation has any particular rule about the Lenten giving up of things. Both traditions do encourage adopting some kind of discipline that will mark the season of Lent as different, as a time to focus on God and contemplate one’s sins and one’s spiritual life, but neither tradition insists that we must give up anything specific or anything at all.

A campus minister friend, for example, decided to adopt a discipline of patience for Lent one year, which he practiced by standing in the longest checkout line every time he went to the grocery store. A Presbyterian pastor I knew announced to the congregation that he was adopting the Lenten discipline, not of giving up chocolate, but of eating just a little bit of chocolate every day. The next morning he walked into his office to find that someone from the congregation had sneaked in during the night and left thousands of M&Ms(tm) on his desk, bookshelves, and chairs. So at the next service he told that story, commented that he loved having such a responsive congregation, and joked that he had decided to give up money for Lent as well. Sure enough, the next morning when he walked into his office, he found that someone had left pennies on every available surface. The church was embarking on a building campaign at the time, so he treated the pennies as a donation to the building fund, and the anonymous prankster did not object.

I’ve never been quite so creative at Lenten disciplines as these two men, but a few years ago I gave up soda for Lent and found that the practice did force me to start thinking about my beverage choices in different ways. More to the point, though, giving up soda also made Lent feel like a season apart that year–not because it made me suffer in any noticeable way but because it was different enough from my normal patterns that I noticed it and had daily occasion to remember what season it was.

The other thing I typically do during Lent, usually when the season is more than half over, is that I have a great idea for a discipline to adopt the following Lent. I vow that, when the next Lent rolls around, I’ll remember that discipline and adopt it. Then, by the time the next Lent does roll around, I find that I’ve completely forgotten what it was. This has happened at least three Lents in a row now.

But today I had an idea for a Lenten discipline that I might try adopting this year.

And that’s why this post is here to read. What I’m going to do for Lent this year is post something to this blog every day.

Well, not every day. I’ll take Sundays off (which actually fits with the tradition of treating Sundays as an exception to the Lenten fast anyway), and possibly Saturdays as well (which fits with the fact that my Saturdays tend to flow differently from my weekdays). Also, if I’m traveling or something and don’t have time to sit down at a computer and write something, I’ll take those days off as well. But otherwise I’ll post something to this blog every day during Lent this year.

I’m making no promises about content, though I’ll try to make it substantive or at least readable. I’m also not going to restrict myself to a particular topic or theme, though it’s possible that one may emerge over the course of several posts. But I’ll post something at least every weekday that I’m not traveling or otherwise prevented by a cause more legitimate than laziness.

There are two disciplines at work here. The first is the discipline of regular writing, which is meant to stimulate my creativity, organize my thoughts, and render my ideas into a communicable, understandable form. Sometimes the only real way to create anything is simply to start getting it down somewhere. The second is the discipline regular posting, of placing my ideas where others can read them. I tend to be timid about letting others in on what I’m thinking, so I need to give myself practice submitting my ideas for others to review, whether or not those folks will like or agree with what I have to say.

So here we go: This is the first post in my Lenten series for 2014.