Wednesday, October 7, 2015

When "Christian Ethics" Go Terribly Wrong

A taboo is a prohibition which is absolute, absolute in a way that it cannot be discussed rationally.  So, for instance, some words become taboo.  It used to be that words discussing human sexuality were taboo.  Nowadays racial epithets are taboo, so taboo that we cannot use them even in a discussion of their origin, meaning, and why they are taboo.  (You will note that in order to avoid this taboo, I am not even mentioning an example of such a word.)  In our society taboos represent ideological absolutes.  That is, they represent ideological principles that must be accepted, and cannot be discussed or analyzed rationally.  In religious we call the embracing of such ideological absolutes fundamentalism.  Fundamentalism is problematic because it shortcuts human reason.  This attempt to bypass human reason is, as I have discussed in previous posts, usually destructive of our humanity, or the humanity of others.

There are two such taboos in our society into which I constantly run head on, one on the "right", and the other on the "left" of our political discourse.  On the right is the issue of homosexuality.  Those on the right not only assume that homosexuality is wrong, but are unable to discuss it rationally.  That is, they are unable to discuss or examine the origins of this moral prohibition, why it might be wrong, and what ancients texts prohibiting actually might mean in context.  It must be said in their favor that this difficulty is not helped by the great deal of poor scholarship attempting to question this prohibition.  However, the taboo is most unhelpful in trying to understand the question in accordance with right reason.

The second taboo, into which I run, on the "left", has to do with abortion.  I recently had a friend who just assumed that because of my Liberal stance on so many political issues that I must be behind "abortion rights".  The idea that I, in fact, was not, was not only a matter of great distress to her, but utterly incomprehensible.  She was unable to consider that a woman's autonomous "right to her own body" was not so broad as to include killing another human life within her.  Nor could she be drawn into a rational discussion of the issues and moral principles involved.  The notion of any restriction being placed on this autonomy was taboo.  This experience I had was, I have found, not unusual, not at all unusual.

I realize that I have by now lost most of my readers.  Most of us in live communities, and perhaps most importantly, religious communities, where at least one of these taboos is strongly enforced.  Many of us have internalized these taboos.  Thus there are those to whom any dissent from the premise that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered, and all homosexual activity a mortal sin, is so absolute that no further discussion of the issue is possible.  There are also those whose notion of a woman's absolute autonomy over her own body is so inflexible that the idea of any discussing of why abortion might be wrong is impermissible.  If you are of either camp, there is nothing further I can say to you.  If, however, you are in any way interested in promoting reasoning together how we might be able to address these issues in a rational way, please read on.  I think this can be a useful discussion, because, among other reasons, it seems to me that these two taboos are in fact related.

Let us talk a bit about homosexuality first.  I recently read James Neill's book, "The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies".  First I must say that this is not a great book. It does not contain significant original scholarship, and there are parts, such as where he discusses Scripture, where his sources are very poor scholarship.  Occasionally he makes significant mistakes, a few of which are rather amusing (such as "'homo' is Latin for 'same'").  Also, there are some lacunae, things omitted, such as dealing with the health effects of certain sexual behaviors. However, it is a useful book in that it is a decent summary of the state of scholarship, and where that scholarship is good, for example, in the biological and anthropological origins of homosexuality, then it is a good resource for understanding the matter.  In terms of Scripture, it also gives, while not good exegesis, nevertheless a decent basis for understanding the world in which the Bible was written, and therefore for understanding how Hebrew and Christian morality differed from that of the surrounding society.  Now I knew most of this, and indeed the essential points of the argument, before I read Neill's book.  However, his book provided a good summary, as well as a list of references, so I recommend it to you.

I am not an advocate of primitivism, or of Rousseau's notion of the noble savage. Human sin — theologically a failure to do that which is pleasing to God, philosophically a failure to act in accordance with right reason (cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia IIae q. 163) — is a constant factor in a fallen world.  Nonetheless, so called "primitive" societies can and do tell us something about how human nature works itself out, something that our cultural prejudices can blind us to when we examine only our own culture.

How then do animals, and primitive human societies, regulate reproduction in such a way as will contribute to the prospering of the species?  In particular, how do they regulate the very strong sex drive of males, especially younger males, and the concomitant high aggression, in a beneficial way?  How do human societies, in particular, where child rearing is a long process requiring a large degree of familial and societal cohesion, ensure stable family and social structures, which could easily be destroyed by unregulated libido and aggression?  In short, how do they avoid what are now social problems which plague us: unwanted pregnancies of people who are insufficiently ready or mature to have and raise children, violence and aggression among young men, and unstable family structures with absent fathers?  How do they deal with the violence that is the result of a lack of social cohesion and an inability to deal with male aggression, often an aggression consequent upon a failure to deal with male libido?

In most species males are separated out from family groups at puberty in such a way as to prevent their aggression and libido from being destructive to females and pre-pubescent offspring.  They often gather in male-only groups, where homosexual behavior serves as a sexual release, and also can serve as a form of group cohesion.  Only when males are able successfully to compete for a mate do they start heterosexual activity, and then often the homosexual activity does not stop.  The closer one gets to Homo Sapiens, the greater the frequency of homosexuality, and its importance for the good functioning of the species.  There are a number of reason why this is the case.  Male Homo sapiens have a relatively constant sex drive, unlike other species where the sex drive is more closely timed to seasons or times in life.  As a result, the human male reproductive system works best when there is frequent ejaculation (4–5 times per week on average).  Also the need for social cohesion between males is greater among social animals, of whom homo sapiens is the most social.

Anthropological and historical research show that the pattern found in other animals in fact occurs in homo sapiens.  The patterns in primitive human societies, when boys hit puberty, is that they are segregated from their mothers and families.  They engage in homosexual activities with their peers and often have a mentor and lover who instructs them in the skills required to be a man in their community.  When they are deemed mature enough, they are allowed to court and marry.  Often after marriage they will continue a sexual relationship with other men, as a means of relieving sexual tension, and also of avoiding adultery with other women.  In this way, human homosexuality serves the functions of regulating the libido, and thus of diminishing aggression.  Diminishing aggression and the emotional bonds formed with other men promotes social cohesion among men, and also diminishes conflict over women.  The sexual relationship with a mentor also serves an educational function to help each man become a good man in his society.

Anyone who has studied, for instance, Greek society will see the clear parallels between the primitive societies which were the subjects of anthropological research and Greek society.  Certain societies, for instance those where polygamy is practiced, and certain more advanced societies, such as Chinese society and Roman society, where slavery and other power structures become enmeshed with issues of sexual behavior, present particular problems.  However, one sees the same sets of concerns and issues being worked out.  Ancient Hebrew society appears not to have been significantly different from other ancient societies, except that certain sexual activities and sexual activities between persons related to each other in certain ways was prohibited.  These prohibitions do not appear to be significantly different from those found in some other ancient societies.  The writers of the New Testament assume the Hebraic prohibitions.

The earliest evidence for what we think of as being traditional Christian sexual morality occurs some time after the New Testament was written.  Because of this it is assumed that the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) say certain things about sexual morality which in fact are not clear from the texts themselves.  One can often depend on subsequent tradition for determining the meaning of biblical texts, but in this case the tradition itself is conflicted, especially on the subject of homosexuality.  However, as one might expect, the legal sources, rabbinical and canonical, provide a clear picture of the strict meaning of biblical texts which is in conflict with a more popular understanding.  In particular, what is more popularly understood by later generations as a prohibition against all homosexual activity is in fact seen by these sources as a prohibition on anal sex (something Neil, sadly, does not discuss). 

What happened in Christianity is that there began to be in late antiquity a very restrictive understanding of permissible sexual activity, an understanding that prohibited all sexual activity as sinful which was not either deliberately procreative in nature or which was not at least possibly procreative.  Sexual activity in the latter category, namely sexual intercourse between married persons was allowed, but discouraged, as a means of sexual release to avoid sexual sin.  Desire for sexual activity per se was seen as being sinful.  This was certainly the consensus view in Western Christianity by the end of the Middle Ages, and remained so among both Protestants (many of whom who were suspicious of celibacy as being an occasion for sexual sin) and Roman Catholics.  These two were thus in essential agreement about what sexual morality consisted of at the time of the Reformation.  The notion, promoted by the likes of Christopher West, that sexual desire (except for the desire to beget children) was a good thing is in fact quite recent in modern Roman Catholicism. 

One of the things that happened in the way of enforcing this consensus on the Western Church was that homosexuality was especially stigmatized.  This appears first among vowed celibates, as it was probably a temptation to which they were more subject.  The demonization of homosexual desire and activity became prevalent about the 13th century, and was directed both against clerics, and also against the military nobility, the class who preserved ancient structure of homosexual behavior as it was originally found in human society.  The effects of this were however, not so much to promote the ideals of churchmen, but rather, by a kind of default, to promote heterosexual behavior.  Thus, for instance, towns in the Middle Ages are known to have founded or promoted brothels, so that young men would have a non-homosexual outlet.  Amongst royalty and nobility adultery, especially the keeping of mistresses, becomes much more common after the demonization of homosexuality.  Churchman often tolerated such things, as being preferable to homosexual behavior.  Here we begin to see how the way in which human societies naturally regulated libido in a socially beneficial way begins to fall apart. 

As Neill outlines, the contact of primitive societies with Westernized society in the 20th century provides a good example, with change occurring in decades as opposed to centuries, of what happens when the natural means of regulating human sexual behavior are overturned.  Many of these societies, upon coming into contact with a Modern society that strongly disapproved of homosexuality, were forced to abandon their traditional homosexual practices.  The consequence in these societies is unmistakable and clear.  There has been a great increase in pregnancies out of wedlock, in teen pregnancy, in adultery (meaning between a man and a woman not his wife, or vice versa) and in divorce and single parent families, all things which are not taking place in our own society.  There has also been, in an attempt to address some of these issues, the importation of contraceptives, some of which have very negative effects, and in abortions, things which were not hitherto required in those societies.  Thus we see how an attempt to introduce “Christian” ethics into these societies, has been quite destructive, and productive of effects which most devout Christians would deplore.   

In future posts I will attempt to explore further what I think is a better base for an ethics and morality based in natural law, and also a scripturally based ethics, would look like, as well as exploring some of the theological issues involved.  I will also examine why these things involve, not rational moral discourse, but taboos.  I recommend, if you have not done so, that you do read Neill’s work.  

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