Scriptures and Theology
Assessing Committed Same-Sex Unions:
Can a Theological Accommodation Be Made?
H. Wayne Schow
By H. Wayne Schow
My starting point is the following proposition: our governmental and religious institutions should sanction committed same-sex relationships. My principal purpose is to explore the theological grounds on which such a radical redirection can be justified.
Let me say at the outset that I am perfectly content to preserve the word "marriage" to designate traditional heterosexual unions. That is what the word has meant historically. We need not get sidetracked into an argument about semantics. What is needed is not expansion of an already established definition but rather an extension of some of the legal and psychological benefits of heterosexual married relationships to a substantively analogous form of commitment between persons.
I am not unaware that in raising the possibility of sanctioning committed same-sex unions, I will seem to be challenging directly the present stance of the LDS Church. It is common knowledge that the church has organized efforts to defeat political initiatives for legalization in several states and has committed substantial sums of money thereto. But I do not see my questioning of the present church position as inappropriate, disloyal or without ample precedent. After all, in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in recent church history, there are numerous examples of significant course changes, changes that were in part brought about by altered conditions, by internal as well as broader cultural dialogue, by evolutionary moral growth. Examples of this include the revised view of God as the God of all human beings, not of Israel alone, the reinterpretation of the gathering of Israel, the cessation of the practice of polygamy, and the extension of the priesthood to black men. The church benefits from open dialogue, from rigorous examination of challenging questions, as a review of our 170-year modern history will show. In this spirit, I hope my observations can be regarded as constructive in their intent.
Much of the religious resistance to gay and lesbian "civil unions" is based loosely on Biblical interpretation. It is true that half a dozen isolated passages make reference to homosexuality. But if read superficially and out of context, they can be misleading. (See John Spong, Living in Sin [chapter nine], which contains an insightful discussion of these contexts.) The Bible is a complex document, an incomplete spiritual history of a particular evolving culture. The Latter-day Saints, who believe in continuing revelation (and by implication, continuing moral evolution), must logically acknowledge that the Bible does not contain necessarily final answers. Furthermore, because of the highly selective nature of historical writing and the inherent limitations of language itself, the Bible's pronouncements are frequently ambiguous and sometimes self-contradictory. Thus, we cannot avoid the burden of interpretation. The Bible has much to teach us, but its truths cannot be plucked out by simplistic proof-texting. It must be interpreted holistically, and that includes reading it in the light of our ongoing experience and considering thoughtfully the implications of cultural evolution.
To evaluate homosexual "civil unions," we must look at the larger role of human sexuality. The Biblical contradictions on the latter subject illustrate the need for holistic reading. One prominent strain of interpretation holds that sexuality is tied closely to the original sin, intrinsic to our fallen condition, and ideally to be suppressed. Since sexuality is seen as physical, of this world, it undermines the realization of our higher spiritual nature. For those who cannot meet the lofty standard of celibacy, marriage is a consolation prize. The apostle Paul promoted this view; in his first letter to the Corinthians, he advised the unmarried to follow his example and remain so. Failing that, he allowed it was "better to marry than to burn." At least, sex confined within marriage perpetuates the species efficiently and minimizes the potential of sexual passion to disrupt society. At its extreme, this interpretation suggests that sexual relations in marriage should be discontinued once conception is no longer the goal.
A more favorable view of marriage and, by implication, of the sexual relation within it, can be found in the same Bible. God said of the solitary Adam in the Garden, "It is not good for man to be alone." Adam and Eve were then joined together as helpmeets to love and support each other in the face of the challenges of living in the world. Presumably, aside from procreation, sexual bonding was beneficial to the end of strengthening love and commitment between partners. Most of us have adopted this view of sexuality within marriage and rejected Paul's position-we do this based on holistic interpretation and cognizance of our own experience.
"But the Bible prohibits adultery, fornication, and homosexual acts," say the religious conservatives. "That means that even if sex in marriage is considered acceptable, sexual intimacy of any kind outside marriage is sinful. What about that?"
Here we must pause to consider why sexual prohibitions-and moral tenets in general-exist and how they come into being. There are those who seem to believe that moral rules originate at some universal level of abstraction, that they are decreed in the beginning by God, more or less arbitrarily, as a test of obedience-"thou shalt not." But if we look at historical evidence, we will see the stages by which moral codes have evolved based on human experience. We will see that prohibitions are directly related to perceived negative effects of particular behaviors, not only as they affect individuals but especially as they affect human relationships and the welfare of the larger society. In short, moral codes rest on a very practical relationship between acts and outcomes. We need to remember this when we attempt to assess moral questions.
The fact is that religions have always been the guardians of social stability and have established conservative, generalized moral codes to promote it. (This is evident in the Hebrew tradition where the distinction between religion and "state" is often blurred.) Thus, when analyzed, sexual prohibitions laid down in scripture will be found to have a substantial basis in practical social concerns. Adultery is forbidden in order to secure faithfulness and stability in the marriage relationship and thus reduce the disruptive social and psychological effects of sexual promiscuity. Fornication is forbidden because society needs to discourage relationships wherein the participants are not able to assume responsibility for the complex outcomes of sexual intimacy. Fornication implies leaping before making adequate preparation for obligations. Society doesn't want to deal with the attendant problems. Homosexual intimacy is forbidden based on a social perception that it undermines heterosexual bonding, procreation, and male protection of offspring, that it constitutes a threat to the traditional family.
There is a generalized practical wisdom in these broad prohibitions of "socially irresponsible" sexual behavior. But if we believe that our sexuality is something more than inherent evil (Paul's idiosyncratic view notwithstanding), if we see our sexual nature as a vital part of our humanness, having the potential to raise us to a higher level of being, if we are to pursue the opportunity for growth inherent in this nature, we must do more than say, "Thou shalt not." "Thou shalt not" is a blunt instrument. As in the Mormon preoccupation with alcohol and tobacco, "thou shalt not" is an easy and sometimes heavy-handed marker that may cause us to emphasize the Pharisaical letter of the law and miss the larger view. "Thou shalt not" sets the bar low; in its negativity, it does not challenge us to find the more fulfilling, more sublime aspects of sexual relationship with another.
Another way of saying this is that sexual morality can focus on a lower plane, analogous to the spirit of the Mosaic Law, or it can aspire to a higher level. For example, when sex in marriage is treated as an obligation, as a legal right to be insisted on, literal conformity with the Mosaic commandment may be satisfied (there is no adultery), but the spirit of the law and its opportunity are missed. Such a relationship does not foster love and good will. Far from being virtuous, it is destructive rather than beneficial to the soul of both partners.
Where in the scripture can we turn to find the needed positive guideposts to a higher sexual morality?
In what has been preserved, Jesus said little on this subject directly. But indirectly, his teaching is filled with tenets that are highly relevant.
Consider the following premises:
Jesus' pronouncements and his behavior underscored these premises repeatedly. They are central in his gospel, the point of beginning in questions of morality. They challenge us to search for understanding and interpersonal fulfillment within a larger, more positive framework.
- That the Kingdom of God is at least as much about the self-fulfillment of persons as it is about institutions.
- That the well-being of every individual person is important.
- That in our efforts to help others, we should accept their uniqueness, care for them in the context of their individual-not generalized-circumstances.
- That love is the first principle and should govern our relationships with others.
God has given us the complex gift of sexuality-and its accompanying responsibility. This gift has the power to bless or to impair our lives. If its expression is selfish, if sensual gratification is its sole raison d'etre, if it reduces the partner simply to an object, it will mostly likely lead to diminishment, ennui, and disillusionment. On the other hand, sex can be the ultimate expression of vulnerability, trust, and generosity. Ideally, it focuses the desire to be fully present to another. As the primary ritual of interpersonal intimacy, it has the power to integrate the mysterious, soulful facets of human life. Through it, the reductive division of body and spirit can be transcended. (See Thomas More, The Soul of Sex, for an extended discussion of this rich potentiality.)
The application of these Christian principles to committed homosexual unions should be obvious.
Humans (normally) need acceptance and security, and these are most powerfully fostered in intimate partnership. In a world that continuously batters the self, each of us needs to know that another who cares deeply is there for us, to defend, counsel, encourage, console, someone to share with us the dark as well as the light places on the mortal journey. For this reason, pairing is a normal desire, a normal need.
Heterosexual couples may not experience such companionship perfectly, but who in choosing to marry is not grateful for the chance to grow within this nurturing condition-with society's unambiguous ritual blessing and continuing encouragement. How many married couples would falter were it not for that social support?
Now here is the main point: Biology, divine intent-call it what you will-has made some in the human family different in the nature of the deepest intimacy they seek with another. And the nature of this longing is more than just superficially sexual. Moreover, powerful evidence shows that the gender direction of love's longing is mysterious and not finally a matter of conscious volition. Whatever the cause, the main outlines of Jesus' teaching suggest that we should encourage these persons to find personal growth responsibly within the parameters of their god-given unique nature, not insist that they conform to some other "one-size-fits-all" pattern of longing. Jesus believed in keeping priorities straight. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath," he said on one occasion. He would probably say something in the same vein about sexual rules.
Do we care enough about the well-being of our homosexual brothers and sisters to allow them a socially-approved supporting structure of love and acceptance and security such as married heterosexuals enjoy, the opportunity to grow together in sustained, committed intimacy? In this case, what finally do we gain by clinging to the negativity of a generalized, uncaring, heavy-handed "thou shalt not"?
Jesus did say that we should judge human behaviors by their fruits. It is not good for a man or a woman to be alone. If two people of whatever gender commit to each other that they will love and cherish and support each other without reservation, is it not likely that such commitment will bear good fruit-and ought we not to support that?
I have argued that it is in the best interest of gays and lesbians, if they so choose, to have their committed unions socially and religiously recognized, that such recognition would help to make available to them the kind of sustained intimacy that is conducive to a unified personality and to the soul's growth, a keystone of personal happiness. But an important question remains: would society's best overall interests be served thereby? Would the existence of sanctioned same-sex unions misdirect the longings of individuals who could otherwise be heterosexually attracted? Would such unions be so common that heterosexual marriage would be statistically undermined? Would such unions weaken the concept and viability of the family in our society? (These questions, after all, fall under the purview of theology, broadly defined.)
The preponderance of evidence suggests that these negative outcomes are highly unlikely.
Paradoxically, considered in terms of society's best interests, by sanctioning committed same-sex unions we would be far more likely to solve some existing social problems than to give rise to new ones.
- The fact is that the gender direction of sexual attraction is established early and remains relatively constant in individuals, and thus acceptance of the legitimacy of committed same-sex unions would not change the relative proportions of homosexual/heterosexual persons in the population nor adversely influence individual behaviors. The fear that genuinely heterosexual persons would be recruited to homosexual orientation and behavior if society were to legitimize committed same-sex unions is ungrounded.
- The fact is that when homosexuals attempt to enter into (heterosexual) marriage, against their true nature, usually in a misguided attempt to conform to social expectations, the result is frequently great dysfunction and unhappiness for the couple and others around them. That so many such marriages either fail outright or persist unhappily is evidence of their flawed basis. It cannot be in society's best interest to perpetuate such suffering.
- The fact is that the birthrate is unlikely to be significantly altered, since the number of homosexuals who would choose to forego traditional marriage (in which they are likely to be miserable) in order to enter into committed same-sex unions (where their chance of happiness is much greater) is statistically very small.
- The fact is that blaming the declining state of the family in society today on recognition of homosexuality and fair treatment of homosexuals has little basis. If the traditional family as a social unit is under siege, the reasons lie largely elsewhere-for example, in growing materialism, in changing views of where happiness is to be found, in the diminished real authority exerted by religions, in the progress of women toward equality and financial freedom which allows them to escape being trapped in undesired marital relationships, in education and in governmental policies which offer that freedom of choice to women.
It is ironic that in its rigid condemnation of homosexuality, the religious right seems to ignore not only the basic human needs of individuals who belong to a normal minority but ignores also the best interests of society. If religious conservatives deplore sexual promiscuity, and if they wish to foster social stability, personal responsibility, and personal spiritual growth, don't they see that they really should support legalized gay and lesbian unions? Homosexual couples could then reasonably be held to similar standards of mature fidelity expected of heterosexual couples. Wouldn't that be a step in the right direction?
I am the father of a young man who died of AIDS. It is a long story, but the bottom line is that he might not have contracted that disease had his family, his church, and his general culture been informed with a true Christian vision of his personal uniqueness and of how they could have encouraged and supported him to find the better path of a committed relationship. That was really what he desired. But we all put stumbling blocks in his path. I regret that at that crucial time, I lacked the vision and courage to stand up for him. But it is not too late now to help others like him.
Theologies are not static: they change as a reflection of our openness to "further light and knowledge." At issue here is our willingness to learn from our collective experience as we go forward. With keener insight on our part, the vision of higher aspiration to which Christ called us ultimately should trump the lesser Mosaic law of "thou shalt not." More love, more interpersonal commitment, and the deeply realized, enduring happiness that flows from them are good, not bad. That's elementary. If enough of us understand this and have the courage to say so, the time will come when our collective moral evolution will occasion new scripture and a better world.