TBLA(8): Biology and theology

John Richardson left a comment on an earlier post which I’ve been meaning to respond to – and now Bishop Alan has written on a related topic. It’s unusual to disagree with John and +Alan on the same grounds, but there you go!

John writes: “I would have thought it was biology, rather than theology, that keep sex and procreation together, but this should affect our thinking about ‘sexual relationships’, especially where, in effect, they are not.” +Alan writes: “Concepts of “natural” and “un-natural” are very fundamental to where people position themselves about homosexuality. There seem to be two basic perceptions from which everything else flows. As clearly and charitably as I can put it Either Homosexuality is a phenomenon against nature, and defies Creation and/or evolution Or Homosexuality is a phenomenon within nature, and thus part of Creation and/or evolution”.

It seems to me that a properly Christian pattern of thinking needs to be careful about importing secular assumptions unnoticed when discussing certain scientific conclusions. That is, from a theological point of view, there is no neutral ‘biology’ from which we then draw theological conclusions; nor is there any mileage in the word ‘natural’. Put differently, a properly theological perspective has the capacity (not the necessity) of construing the biological or the natural in a way that runs against any particular scientific consensus about ‘facts’ and, sometimes, it is obliged to do so. (This is essentially Milbank’s point in Theology and Social Theory, although I think Wittgenstein got there first.)

I’ll talk about the ‘natural’ first. The major problem with use of the word ‘natural’ in any discussion like this is that it cannot be given any substantive content. That is, human beings are themselves part of any ‘natural’ order – and so anything which human beings do is therefore ‘natural’ and the word loses any distinctive purchase. Alternatively, the distinction is drawn between the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’, in which case nothing ‘human’ is ‘natural’, and again the word loses its distinctive purchase. What use of the word ‘natural’ tends to be employed for is some sense of ‘this pattern of activity aligns with this purpose’ – that is, the substantive content of the word ‘natural’ when used in an argument derives entirely from the underlying aim envisioned for the human being, and it is at that level that the debate needs to engage. So, in matters of sexuality, one position envisions human sexuality as being entirely about procreation – this is what gets privileged as ‘natural’ – and therefore anything which is not procreative is proscribed as ‘unnatural’. Alternatively, human sexuality is envisioned as being about pair-bonding and mutual affection etc, and therefore a much larger variety of sexual expression is ‘natural’.

One way of progressing the debate might therefore be to enquire as to what is the actual ‘biological’ truth – is it the case that human sexuality is entirely about procreation, or not? Is it the case that, as John infers, it is ‘biology’ that keeps sex and procreation together? Where this aspect starts to break down, for me, is that it ignores the cosmic dimension of the Fall. That is, in Christian thinking, there is a distinction between the world that God originally made, and the world that we now inhabit. The latter is a broken or impaired form of the former, one that is slowly being redeemed and healed as we head towards the Kingdom. To say that it is biology that keeps sex and procreation together – if it is to do anything more than simply point out that (so far) conception is a biological process – does not advance our understanding very far. To return to the question of gay relationships, it is perfectly possible to say that homosexual attraction is a part of the evolved order in which we find ourselves, but to describe that as being part of the cosmic Fall. In other words, it doesn’t actually advance the case in favour of gay relationships to point out all the ways in which there are gay relationships elsewhere in the existing order. It is perfectly possible for someone to say ‘yes, that’s true, but that’s just evidence of our brokenness – it is not part of God’s original intention and one day it will pass away’. (This relates to the ethical question about how to proceed if there was a ‘cure’ for homosexuality.)

There seems to be a distinction, therefore, between how something might be ‘as God intends’ and how things presently are – and from those to how we are to behave within our present context. I don’t believe that appeals to ‘biology’ or what is ‘natural’ actually progress the discussion in a more Christian direction. What would do so, I believe, is if Christians began by pondering the rest of +Alan’s post, most especially the shocking vitriol hurled at him for putting his head above the parapet on one side. If it is by their fruits that we will know them, then that is probably a much more certain place to start our considerations than any questions of biology or naturalness.

5 thoughts on “TBLA(8): Biology and theology

  1. I’m fairly certain that heterosexual attraction is also a result of the brokenness that came after The Fall, since it doesn’t seem to have existed in the Garden, just as childbirth itself didn’t exist there….

  2. I’ve alwqays had difficulty with the western scholastic concept of “natural” law. I think you are quite right to relate this to the fall. “Natural” means “according to nature”, but which nature? Our fallen nature, or our transformed nature in Jesus Christ. In one sense it is quite “natural” to want to beat those who get in our way into a bloody pulp. Road rage is quite “natural” in a purely biological sense.

    The idea that we should restrain our urges — physical urges, like sexual urges, or urges of anger, is associated with the idea of a transformed nature, in which what was “natural” to the “old man” become unnatural to the new one.

  3. “And granted that your imperative, “living according to Nature,” means actually the same as “living according to life”–how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be? In reality, however, it is quite otherwise with you: while you pretend to read with rapture the canon of your law in Nature, you want something quite the contrary, you extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders! In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature “according to the Stoa,” and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and generalism of Stoicism! With all your love for truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, and with such hypnotic rigidity to see Nature FALSELY, that is to say, Stoically, that you are no longer able to see it otherwise– and to crown all, some unfathomable superciliousness gives you the Bedlamite hope that BECAUSE you are able to tyrannize over yourselves–Stoicism is self-tyranny–Nature will also allow herself to be tyrannized over: is not the Stoic a PART of Nature? . . . But this is an old and everlasting story: what happened in old times with the Stoics still happens today, as soon as ever a philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to “creation of the world,” the will to the causa prima. ” – Nietzsche.

  4. Unless one is proposing a plan to return to the Garden, I should think we need to dwell where we are and consider these questions here.

    Sex may be necessary for procreation, but that is not all there is to sex. Of course these days procreation can take place without the physical act of sex as we generally define it.

    Anyway, any discussion about sex and procreation has to include the simple fact that lots and lots of people have sex every day who are unable to procreate, and nobody says they shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

    Personally, I liked +Alan’s post very much, and I appreciated his quoting +Desmond.

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