Visions of Daniel


What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality

 

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What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality. Alamo Square Press, 1994, 2000.

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From the Preface to the First Edition:

Living in the Bible Belt since 1981, I came to this sad realization: Bible religion plays a major role in allowing violence against lesbian and gay people to occur. Quote the Bible, and all discussion suddenly comes to an end. Supposedly, the Bible condemns homosexuality, and some people take that to mean that the Bible justifies hatred and cruelty against gays and lesbians.

 

Of course, bigotry will have its day, and it will claim to have God on its side—against Jews, against Muslims, against Blacks, against women, against gays. Thus has it always been.

But more reasoned voices also emerge from within religion. Recent research on the Bible shows that, at the very least, the same-sex acts that are the focus of biblical concern were not what we mean by “homosexuality” today. Put the Bible back into its original cultural and historical setting, and it becomes blatantly obvious that the Bible conceived of the matter very differently in a very different world. Even more, this research shows that the Bible is basically indifferent to homosexuality in itself. The Bible is concerned, as with heterosexuality, only when practices violate other moral requirements….

The Bible supplies no real basis for the condemnation of homosexuality. Therefore, people must stop opposing homosexuality merely by quoting the Bible because, taken on its own terms, the Bible simply does not support their case. If they have some other reason for their opposition, they ought to get clear what that reason is and state it up front.

That is the challenge I pose with this book—for those who oppose homosexuality. For those who are homosexual or who support those who are, I offer this book as some consolation: the Bible is not against them. For those who are somewhere in the middle, not knowing where to stand, I hope this book will help them make an informed judgment.

 

The Story of this Book

A hobby—this is probably the most accurate word to describe how I wrote this book: it was a hobby. I was working out my own questions. I was on a personal search.

When I "came out" in Boston in the mid-70s, like most people dealing with sexual orientation, I had a tendency to second-guess myself. From time to time, doubts would surface: "Was I just fooling myself? Was homosexuality really a sin? Was I just being led astray by dishonest teachers or even 'the devil'?" Negative attitudes about homosexuality are so widespread in our society, so silently and, thus, so powerfully ingrained in us, and so insidiously reinforced at every turn that getting beyond the misinformation is a long-term challenge.

John McNeill's book was the first to give me hope on the religious front: The Church and the Homosexual (1976). McNeill mounted a convincing argument—including recent research on the Bible texts, borrowed from John Boswell—that the churches were wrong in their condemnation of same-sex love. A standard principle of Catholic moral teaching—I can even quote it in Latin: Lex dubia non obligat : A doubtful law has no binding power—is that no one can be held to severe moral requirements when there is doubt whether those requirements are necessary. In my mind and in the mind of many others, McNeill's book showed that there was serious doubt about the long-touted immorality of homosexuality. There seemed to be no serious moral obligation to avoid homosexual love. So, trained as a priest and then as a theologian and piqued by McNeill's work, I began following the scholarship on the Bible and homosexuality.

John Boswell's book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (1980), was my next major input on homosexuality in the Bible. Boswell's close study of words used in the biblical texts showed rather conclusively that those texts originally meant something different from what they are generally taken to mean today.

Still, Boswell's argument about the Letter to the Romans did not convince me—that Romans condemns heterosexual men for their homosexual involvements, not homosexual men for such involvements. To be sure, the ancients had no explicit understanding of sexual orientation; for them sex naturally expressed itself in a variety of ways. So, of course, Paul could not have been thinking about homosexual men when he wrote Romans. But if not, then how can we impose on Paul's thought the modern distinction between the heterosexual and the homosexual men who engaged in same-sex behaviors?

To me, Boswell's argument sounded too much like so many other arguments I'd heard, interpretations that were seemingly grasping at straws to somehow discredit the biblical statement. Thus, for example, people say that Romans and Leviticus were talking about sexual behavior that involved pagan rituals, not homosexual behavior in itself. Or some say that in Romans Paul was talking about what is "unnatural" to a person, but, as we now know, gay sex is perfectly natural to gay men, so Paul's teaching would not apply to them. These arguments may have some kind of logical validity in general, but, measured against the historical-critical evidence, they are hardly the arguments of the biblical texts. They do not express the mind of the biblical authors. These interpretations are anachronistic. Besides, they do not answer the objection that, regardless of their circumstances, the Bible condemned same-sex acts, period.

So I still had a nagging doubt about the meaning of Romans 1. Could it not be that this key passage was actually condemning homosexuality?

L. William Countryman put that question to rest. I had read his book, Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their Implications for Today (1988) and laid it aside: I was taken up in those years with doctoral studies in psychology. Then, as part of a study group of professional gay men in Austin, I reread and discussed Countryman's book. In that setting the book's full impact came through to me. Countryman had explained the text on male-male sex in Romans 1! He had made completely coherent sense of every aspect of the passage! No other interpretation I knew could make the same claim. In my mind, the issue was resolved. And the resolution did not support any biblical condemnation of homosexuality. Somebody had to popularize that information.

I had been following scholarly discussion about homosexuality in the Bible for over a decade. I was trying to bring peace to my own conscience. When the pieces finally all came together, I set to writing a short, simply worded book that would share my find with others.

I confess that, with less than a loving heart, another of my goals was "to blow the Fundamentalists out of the water." I repent of that foolishness. Oh, I would still like to get the inanity of biblical literalism and its anti-sex political agenda out of the discussion, but I have developed some compassion for the people painfully imprisoned by that narrow-minded thinking and their guilt-ridden up-bringing. Besides, I now realize that evidence and reasoning do not make a dent in unthinking religion and blind faith. No matter how well I or anyone else could argue, the Fundamentalists are not going to change their minds, at least not on the basis of reasonable argument.

All we get about the Bible on TV, radio, billboards, and street corners is simple-minded Biblical literalism. Any thinking person knows that the issues must be more complex. But bold appeal to "God's word" buffaloes people, and very few of us are in a position to plow through the scholarly tomes and the technical articles and get a different perspective. So I set out to write a concise, direct, and easily understood summary.

I am not a novelist or a poet or even an op-ed pundit. I am a born scientist and a technical writer with a demanding analytic mind. So I just wrote what I knew as simply and directly as I could. And people found the book helpful. Some were even inspired. People continue to tell me that, because of this little book, they have resurrected their religion or, at least, found spirituality or, thank God, in more cases than I care to count, have "stepped back from that ledge, my friend": they opted out of suicide.

For the most part, writing the book was a pretty straight-forward task. In my typical style, I just plodded on, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, day after day. Only the chapter on arsenokoitai—1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10—just that one Greek word, which no one knows exactly how to translate, posed a problem for me. I was not convinced that these texts did not refer to male-male sex acts, and, if they did, I was not sure what exactly the biblical teaching was in this case. I agonized over the matter. I explicitly remember pacing the floor of my study with a knot in my stomach and, a number of times on different days, walking into my bedroom and lying down, staring at the ceiling, thoughts going round and round in my head. I had to be honest about what I wrote: What if God really does condemn homosexuality? What if I would be leading people astray by what I wrote? I finally resolved the matter in my mind and conscience and finished that first edition. In the 2000 edition, of course, I up-dated my opinion about those two passages, and this time I was more easily at peace. New research had even further convinced me that there was no condemnation of homosexuality at all in the Scriptures.

After I finished the book, it sat on my desk for three years. Nobody would publish it. The religious publishers said it was too one-sided. They meant it was on the wrong side. The gay publishers said it would not sell: "There will be no support for a book of this kind in the gay market." Oh, how mistaken they would all be proved to be! Bert Herrman of Alamo Square Press is committed to getting out gay-positive material that needs to be published but will not be unless he publishes it. He agreed to publish my book.

Then how we worked that text! I am so grateful for Bert's relentlessly critical eye. He made me simplify and clarify my text in many places. And we hassled for weeks over the book's title. I had come up with "God to Gays" and was fond of that title. With whatever good sense of marketing he has, Bert absolutely vetoed that title. We went back and forth with other suggestions. Finally, he proposed "What the Bible Really Says." I was okay with that title, but we could find no mutually acceptable subtitle to go with it. Concerned, perhaps foolishly, about how the title would read on my academic resume, I wanted something in the title to indicate the book's topic: homosexuality. Finally, in desperation I suggested we just add "about Homosexuality" and leave it at that. Bert agreed, and we did. And apart from comments about how easily the book reads, the most frequent compliment regards "the really great title."

I must confess that I take secret delight in that title—because I think it irks the Fundamentalists. And somebody needs to challenge them! They like to believe that they know what the Bible really teaches. They don't like anyone horning in on their territory. But as much as anyone could, I know that I am right. I believe that my book summarizes the actual teaching of the Bible. Why? Because the scholarly evidence supports my conclusion, and, at this point in history, the evidence is overwhelming.

Of course, the Fundamentalists don't buy my reliance on evidence. They rely on another criterion: their own sense of conviction. Despite all the evidence, they want to believe they are right, and their very desire is enough to tip the balance for them. They insist that their faith doesn't need evidence, that faith is beyond evidence. It almost seems that they actually believe they are right just because they think they are and because they agree with one another.

Of course, I, too, think that some matters of faith are beyond proof or disproof. But I would also insist that, if not provable, religious beliefs ought at least to be reasonable; they should not contradict the weight of evidence and good sense. This insistence, by the way, has been part of the Christian tradition since Justin Martyr in the second century. For Saint Augustine in the fifth century, one principle of biblical interpretation was that the interpretation should not conflict with the best scientific opinion of its day.

But by their own self-validating criterion, yes, of course, the Fundamentalists are right. But by their criterion, so am I, for my conviction is also firm! Besides, I have the evidence on my side. And in any case, I wonder, why would people want to surrender their common sense and base their lives on mere uninformed belief—superstition? Take the terrorists who flew planes into the towers of the World Trade Center in the name of God—were they right just because they firmly believed in their "holy" mission? If I can paraphrase the Epistle of James 2: 17, 20: like faith without works, belief without reason is quite dead, useless.

So I like the title of the book. The title is entirely accurate.

As the millennium approached, Bert Herrman wanted to publish as second edition of the book. I was happy for the opportunity to up-date my research, and, as I explained in the Preface to the Second Edition and repeated above, I am now more firmly convinced than ever that the Bible offers no condemnation of homosexuality, indeed, that the Bible was not even concerned about hetero- versus homosexuality. The ancients simply had no such notions or preoccupations. Specific behaviors and cultural taboos, not the sex of one's partner, was their only concern.

People sometimes wonder if the Catholic Church made any official response to my book. I am surprised to have to say, No. The reasons for this state of affairs are probably political. For example, as was my custom in publishing anything when I was still in the priesthood, when the book first came out, I sent a copy to my bishop so that he would be aware of the book and be forewarned in case there was controversy. Unlike in earlier cases, I never received a letter of acknowledgement from my bishop. Since he wrote no letter to me, I surmised, there would be in the official diocesan archives no record of his having received the book. It would be as if the book never existed or, at least, as if he never knew about it. Since I resigned from the priesthood a year later—with no encouragement whatsoever from my bishop to think over my decision: another very atypical occurrence—there was little that the official church could do then to discipline me, in any case. So the Catholic Church made and makes no response.

Of course, I would welcome a condemnation from the new Pope! It would give much needed publicity to the biblical argument about homosexuality, and I think I would enjoy having a voice in the ensuing discussion. But, I suspect, church officials are aware of that likely outcome and do not want to give the book any additional publicity. Perhaps they are also aware that they would lose an honest, scholarly debate and do not what to take such a risk.

Besides, read carefully, the book in no way contradicts official Catholic teaching. Still active in priestly ministry when I wrote that book, I was careful to state in the Preface to the First Edition and in the book's concluding paragraph that I was only summarizing biblical scholarship; I was only stating what it seemed the Bible says on that topic; I was not making any final judgment about the morality of homosexuality in itself. Since—unlike classical Protestantism and especially current Fundamentalism—Catholic teaching does not rely on the Bible alone for its ethical teaching, in merely summarizing scholarly opinion about the Bible, my book did not actually challenge official Catholic teaching. Of course, church officials would have preferred that I not publish such a summary, and official Catholic teaching disagrees with the summary I published, and for these reasons I am surely on the Vatican's blacklist. But technically speaking, in the Catholic Church there is no prohibition against a theologian's carefully and responsibly summarizing scholarly opinion.

I have, of course, been dogged by the Fundamentalists—at public presentations, in editorial pages, on "Christian" TV, and on the World Wide Web. On two occasions, for precaution's sake, I had a police escort as I left a college campus. On another occasion I had to leave the stage by the back door. Frequently "ministers of God" in my audience tried to take over the floor, debate me, and personally demean me. Once, when it was announced that only written questions would be accepted, a quarter of the audience, most toting Bibles, stood up and filed out: they were there to argue, not to listen.

The Fundamentalists know my work, and they detest it. They say that my book is more dangerous than most because it is well done. They note, for example, that I do not deny the inspiration or inerrancy of the Scriptures. Their favorite criticism, which sounds so legitimate, is that I give no documentation for the historical claims that I make. In this regard, as in others I've seen, they misrepresent the truth. As I state in the Preface to the First Edition, consultation of the annotated bibliography in the back of my book will show where I got my information about all the major points in the book. Nit-picking, the Fundamentalists keep searching for some way to discredit my scholarship. The subtlety of my position baffles them: I appear to respect the Bible as much as they, yet I come to a different conclusion. Too bad they never consider the one hypothesis that might hold: my book just might have some truth to offer.

If I am so convinced that my conclusion is correct, why, you might ask, is there still so much controversy over homosexuality among even the Christian (non-Fundamentalist) churches? The Vatican is attempting to shut down all debate on the topic. The Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists continue to debate it, and like the Anglicans in the case of Bishop Robinson, they are seeing major rifts in their churches and congregations. Could the biblical teaching really be all that clear?

Well, I wish I had an easy answer. For one thing, some people in the mainline churches have gone fundamentalist. Their reverence for the Bible has become an obsession, so their capacity for critical thinking suffers. For another thing, 19th- and 20th-century missionary efforts are now coming back to haunt the denominations. "Christian" conversions in Hawaii, for example, suppressed that culture's comfort with sexuality in its many expressions. The same occured in Africa. Now the Anglican Church--never literal in its use of the Bible--is struggling with Biblical Fundamentalism in its African dioceses, and their anti-gay leadership is splintering the Anglican communion. Another consideration is this: many people in gay-supportive churches are simply not privy to current biblical scholarship, and, fearful of splintering their congregations, pastors are wary of sharing their biblical knowledge with their congregations: why bring up controversial topics in these unsettled times? Once, for example, I spoke at a liberal Methodist church. The ministers and church members are very welcoming to lesbian and gay people—but mostly out of a sense of basic good will, Christian charity and justice, not out of informed understanding. I was surprised—actually, shocked—about how little these gay-supportive Christians knew of the commonly available information that I summarize in my book. Even today, much education about basic biblical teaching is still sorely needed.

But there is another, more powerful, force at work: irrationality, which one might even rightly call diabolical. (In this case, I understand diabolical to mean doing evil in the name of good.) I have hardly ever seen a discussion of homosexuality that proceeded coolly. For the most part, when the topic is homosexuality—or even sex in general—people lose perspective. Emotions, personal beliefs, guilt, fear, ignorance, and prejudice so color this topic that people can hardly face it calmly. For more on the outright irrationality of Biblical Literalism, see my Foreword to Patrick Chapman's excellent "Thou Shalt Not Love": What Evangelicals Really Say to Gays.

Besides, the implications of this discussion are monumental. Some Christians actually fear that Christianity is taking its last stand on the topic of homosexuality: lose on this one and, supposedly, the religion is lost. Other biblical teachings have already been reinterpreted: the shape, age, and location of the earth; slavery; the taking of interest on money; and the role of women in the home and society. If it turns out that Christians cannot follow what they thought was biblical teaching even about homosexuality, what is left in the Bible to believe in? Of course, the Bible has other more important and lasting lessons to teach: charity, justice, community, honesty, trust, compassion, forgiveness, and the like. But to recall these would be rational, and my point is that discussion of homosexuality snuffs out rationality.

Moreover, the legitimation of homosexual relationships will call for readjustment of the most basic structures of society—family, inheritance, property ownership, male dominance, gender roles, sexual ethics, societal diversity. People are understandably reluctant to unleash such changes.

Facing such overwhelming issues, people tend not to see clearly. We see what we can take in; we miss or quickly forget what is too challenging to us. Jean Piaget described the learning process in terms of "assimilation" and "accommodation." The familiar, we just take in; we assimilate it. But the novel requires that we accommodate to it, that is, that we adjust our categories, rework our understandings. What we can't accommodate for whatever reason, we force into a pre-existing worldview, or else we overlook it or ignore it or reject it outright. Freud also described this psychological process in terms of "defense mechanisms": our own unconscious mind will do whatever is needed to keep it, us, and our world from breaking down. We cannot live without comfortable structure and system, so we find ways to maintain conceptual order. We make sure our customary way of thinking and living holds up even at the cost of denial, projection, displacement, reaction-formation, and other such short-term, self-preservative strategies.

What the Bible does or does not teach about homosexuality is a rather straight-forward historical question. But to look at this emotionally charged question in a straight-forward way is another matter. The fact is that the historical-critical evidence points to an ever more firm conclusion: the Bible simply did not think of homosexuality as we do, and the Bible made what condemnation it did make about certain sex acts for reasons wholly irrelevant to our current situation and our way of thinking and believing. In the face of the existing evidence, an honest person would, in the very least, have to admit that the biblical teaching about homosexuality is not clear; it's debatable. There exists no rational explanation as to why many in the churches, both Christian and Biblical Fundamentalist, continue to insist categorically that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Their response is not rational. Looking for logic and reason to explain the irrational is itself folly. The fact is that other factors besides objective research and reasonable argument are most often controlling this discussion.

Nonetheless, the steady voice of learning and reason still holds an important place, and people want to hear it. My book has been translated into Portuguese, Polish, Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Spanish, and French. To date, over 99,500 copies of the book have been sold in English, and the conservative political shift of the last few years in the United States has kept sales steady. As long as the Fundamentalists keep touting their uncritical understanding of the Bible, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality will remain relevant.

Into this same discussion I welcome Patrick Chapman's Thou Shalt Not Love. It is a remarkable summary of current findings about homosexuality, biblical as well as scientific. As the objective evidence mounts and becomes known, opposition to same-sex love will dissolve. It will be recognized as the prejudice that it is, and our world will learn to welcome the diversity that God built into our wondrous universe.

Thus, a hobby, driven by personal need to be honest about the state of my soul, has involved me in a major battle of the current culture wars. And who would have thought it? From unexpected sources come advances in God's work. Is that not a lesson that The Good Book itself teaches again and again?