I don’t know about you, but every conversation I have about homosexuality (well, at least in the Christian context) inevitably circles back to one issue.
We’re all familiar with the spectrum of opinion. There are those who vehemently argue that the very desire for someone of the same sex/gender is sinful. There are those who – no less vehemently – insist that queer love and physical intimacy, like all love and physical intimacy, is God-given and, therefore, intrinsically not sinful. And there are those who uneasily hold a middle ground, saying, for instance, that it’s not sinful for a woman to be in love with another woman, or even to live with her in friendship and companionship, so long as they don’t, um, “act on it.”
No matter where they fall on this spectrum, however, most Christians think that homosexuality – and, for that matter, all sexuality – has something to do with sin.
In my next few posts, I’m going to probe a bit deeper into this common assumption. I believe that our thoughts on homosexuality reveal something important about our usual notions of sin. They reveal – to put it bluntly – that our theology of sin is often not really Christian. This is because, when we talk about sin, we habitually begin with nature and law, not with Christ and the gospel.
Although there is no one Christian theology of sin, and the opinions of ecclesiastical writers have been varied and nuanced, two common approaches to this subject can still be distinguished.
Sin and Nature
The first approach defines sin by appealing to the notion of nature. God’s creation – so this argument goes – is intrinsically good. The world that we inhabit, from the movements of the galaxies to the minute workings of our bodies, possesses a proper internal structure, order, and measure. In the beginning, God endowed nature with harmony, beauty, and balance. He gave each creature its true, fitting essence and form. This means that all things – from stars to humans to atoms – possess an inherently good way of being, a divinely ordained purpose that constitutes their deepest fulfillment and happiness.
What’s more, God wanted this divine blueprint, this original pattern of creation, to govern not only the physical but also the moral and ethical life of his cosmos. Each creature – so this argument goes – must live according to its deepest God-given nature. Humans and lions, bacteria and oceans have natural, inherently good ways of acting, of choosing, of relating to one another and to the universe as a whole.
To sin, then, is to disturb this innate harmony of nature, to violate this divine plan. Humans – so the argument goes – usually do this by acting in ways that are improper to their essence and purpose (for instance, men abandon their natural intercourse with women and have sex with men). Sometimes our actions lead to such deep ruptures in the cosmic order that human nature itself becomes twisted, ugly, and sinful (for instance, women are born with an unnatural desire for other women).
This appeal to nature underpins, in one way or another, most Christian theologies of sin. And yet – as I will argue in my next post – it merely reprises the deep Greco-Roman reliance on nature, whether as the goddess Natura or as the philosophical idea of the well-ordered cosmos. Christian thinkers do, of course, replace the pagan “unmoved mover” with personal God the Creator, and substitute “nothingness” for the original chaos, but they leave the rest of the structure intact. This is actually a significant error, because in this “Christianized” Hellenistic matrix Christ is, at best, the mediator and architect of cosmic order, the purifying and transforming agent that restores or renews nature’s goodness, or the most perfect incarnation of divine purpose. Christ is – quite simply – a pagan god.
So, all Christian attempts to condemn or justify homosexuality on the grounds of nature ultimately fail.
Sin and Law
The second approach defines sin by appealing to law. God – so this argument goes – gave humans a set of commandments, a list of “do-s” and “don’t-s.” Whether these commandments reflect a fitting and proper order of nature is beside the point (although most Christian theologians connect the two in some way). What matters is that we do not break God’s commandments, that we follow them perfectly. If we fulfill divine law, well and good. Our lives will run smoothly. God will shower us with blessings. The world around us will flourish. God will not be angry. If we don’t fulfill God’s law, we ask for what’s coming to us – from the collapse of our day-to-day lives, to cosmic plagues and catastrophes, to divine wrath and displeasure.
To sin, according to this argument, is to violate God’s law, whether by not doing what we’re supposed to do or by doing what we’re not supposed to. And, by and large, Christian moralists have been clear on what this law (whether it is derived from the scriptures or from church’s teachings) entails in terms of human sexuality: monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, a ban on same-sex intercourse, and a call for battling illicit desires. Any act that violates these parameters incurs God’s wrath and renders you liable to punishment.
This appeal to divine law, however, is not a Christian, or even a Jewish, invention. All religions possess some kind of divine law-giver. All religions operate on a basis of some covenantal or legal matrix: you do x and don’t do y to attract divine favour, to ensure divine presence in your community, to maintain cosmic order, to attain happiness. Human reliance on law as an instrument of salvation is universal and can be seen, in one form or another, in every society.
But the good news of Christ – his completely free, unmerited gift of mercy, his decision to be with us regardless of who we are or what we do – is truly radical. Christ’s grace ruptures the familiar tight connection between sin and law. Law no longer meaningfully defines sin.
And so, all Christian attempts to condemn or justify homosexuality on the grounds of divine law also ultimately fail.
Ok, so… Is Homosexuality a Sin?
In my next few posts, I will argue that most current answers to this question – the yes, the no, and the plethora of uneasy in-betweens – completely miss the point inasmuch as they assume that sin is connected to nature and law.
This connection, as I’ve already suggested, is deeply un-Christian. Yet it is undeniably present in most traditional theological discussions of sin and sexuality. So are those traditional discussions simply wrong?
Well, have you ever noticed what happens when modern Christians try to employ traditional theological concepts to speak about sin? Have you, perhaps, experienced a vague unease when you tried to use the language of nature and law to talk about homosexuality? (In this case, it doesn’t matter whether you tried to show that it was sinful or that it was good.)
I, for one, have experienced a strange feeling of dissonance, which eventually led me to the conclusion that there was something fundamentally wrong with our inherited theologies of sin.
Despite what some writers say, this feeling of dissonance and unease is not there because modern men have lost some fundamentally Christian perspective of the early church, or some normative “mind of the fathers.” It’s there simply because we’ve lost a broad cultural outlook that had, once, easily and intuitively fit with the Greco-Roman reliance on Nature and the pagan-Jewish religious trust in divine Law. We’ve lost a Hellenistic way of thinking about the world. And we’ve discovered that most Christian theologies of sin simply don’t work without it.
And – to put it bluntly – if our theology doesn’t work because the cultural assumptions that have upheld it are gone, then it must have been, at bottom, profoundly un-Christian.
So it might be time to let traditional ways of thinking go. It might be time to stop worrying so much about our sin and our goodness, our nature and our law and ask (as I will) a different question:
What do sin (and homosexuality) have to do with Christ’s cross, Christ’s freedom, and Christ’s grace?
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