We had the experience but missed the meaning

T.S Eliot

The Failure to Persuade

There has been much hand wringing, especially in Anglosphere Protestant circles, as to why arguments against gay marriage are so unpersuasive and often so bad. The good folks at The Calvinist International have already provided many excellent analysis on this topic and have given much needed counsels against a despairing loss of nerve. They have also rendered unto us a valuable service in clarifying the role of natural law in arguments about gay marriage in addition to calling those of us who suffer from culture war fatigue off the theological ledge of retreat into a (faux) Reformed “Two Kingdoms” which would abandon the civic realm to the devil’s whims while Christians huddle together in the safety of the ghettos of a robust visible Church which pretends to take over and incorporate the functions of the civic order unto itself.

As good and insightful as these many analysis maybe upon the issue, my primary dissatisfaction with them is that they are primarily focused on the external civic aspect on the issue of homosexuality, based upon its public consequences. Not that these are unimportant or to be neglected, certainly they have public significance which calls for a public analysis. But surely the focus upon the public, external, and civic significance of homosexuality ignores the fact that homosexuality is not a external problem for most, concerned merely with the objective form of civic polity, but strikes most as an existential crisis, whether for those who experience it themselves or who have friends who experience it. They are more concerned with the significance of the homosexual experience itself, the meaning internal to it, rather than its civic significance. They aren’t really interested in dry statistical data upon homosexual relationships or gay marriages (even if those data are correctly used in other contexts), or in the metaphysical significance of homosexuality in relation to its place in the cosmos (again, as correct as they might be in other contexts). To put it as crudely, they want to know what their feelings or desire means to them as individuals rather than its place in the civic order, in its immediacy of their experience rather than as part of a broader system.

The Subjective as a “Black Box”: The Romantic Premise

This is why many (Christian) discourses on homosexuality tend to treat the homosexual experience as a “black-box” and simply talk around it, choosing to focus instead upon its civic/moral significance. Some of the reasons for this evasion is understandable, sexual experiences are meant to be private experiences, not matters of public scrutiny or discussion, modesty forbids a too explicit examination of such experiences, even less an open discussion on such. However, there are other motivations and reasons for this evasion of the examination of the homosexual experience which are grounded more in, what I think, a mistaken conception of the subjective life.

There is a prevalent idea that subjective experience is “primitive” or unanalysable, that is, one simply “feels” it and simply “knows” it which doesn’t permit of an explication or description. Such subjective experience is experienced “immediately” and not mediated through concepts or reason. I shall call this the romantic premise because of its origins in the 18th century Romantic revolt against Enlightenment rationalism. The idea being that the subjective state is experienced “immediately” and cannot (or rather should not) be eviscerated and broken down by “rational” analysis.

It’s application to the homosexual experience is quite obvious. People simply “know” that they are “gay” and refuse to allow this assertion to be interrogated or do not allow us to examine what do they mean by this assertion. How can I possibly be wrong about my own subjective feelings or experience? How can I be wrong about myself? It is axiomatic in our time that self-reporting is infallible, we are simply what we say we are, even to the extent that we can swap genders by a linguistic fiat. (For an excellent critique of self-reporting, I would recommend the excellent Alastair Roberts’s masterly essay on this.)

However for those of us who have yet to lose our common sense, this is clearly nonsense. If I said that I am the reincarnation of Julius Caesar people would rightly reject my claim, even if that claim is a claim about myself. If I said that I experienced being possessed by Sir Stamford Raffles or Napoleon, people would rightly be sceptical as to whether I truly had such an experience or is it not merely a product of my own imagination.

This is of course not to say that the homosexual experience is merely the product of an imagination, far from it! But the main problem with the romantic premise with regards to the homosexual experience is that the homosexual experience consists of a plurality of identifiable distinct experiences merely lumped together by convention. By treating the homosexual experience as a “black box”, we condemn many to confusion and promote a careless proliferation of people randomly identifying themselves as “gay” or “homosexual” based on a set of vaguely related experiences or phenomena. The fact is that there isn’t actually a unified “sexual orientation” or a coherent and consistent meaning to being “gay” or “homosexual”, we have “gay-for-pay”, porn actors who perform gay sex, and even say that they enjoy it, while still claiming to be straight, “straight porn for gay audiences” for homosexuals who like the experience of heterosexual sex, all of which renders the homosexual experience rather complex and makes simple and straightforward identification problematic. (I have discussed the problems of defining the “gay” here.)

Rather than consign the sexually confused to grope randomly in the dark under an ambiguous label, we should be bringing clarity to the meaning of the experience itself. Given how heavily laden and politicised the concept of homosexuality has become, we should, rightly, suspect that this is a concept which is currently suffering from semantic inflation, overused and woefully underanalysed. We need to “deflate” the currency with which the concept has been invested with and start breaking down the concept into its component parts. It is entirely reasonable and possible to ask individuals what do they mean by homosexual experience or gay desire. In short, it is both prudent and reasonable to ask ourselves the shape and character of the homosexual experience and break it down in parts and examine each part by itself before shoving individuals under all encompassing categories of “sexual orientation”. (I have discussed how to reason about such experiences here.)

Idealisation of the Internal State: The Authenticity Premise

Very closely related to the “romantic premise” is what I would call the “authenticity premise”. The authenticity premise is employed whenever you hear people speak about “being true to themselves” or “being who they really are”, etc. The authenticity premise is a function of the romantic premise. If internal states are unanalysable and cannot be critiqued or broken down, then they constitute a “fundamental” aspect of oneself (remember, they are basic and cannot be broken down based on anything more fundamental, they are what you are). If these internal states are what you are “fundamentally”, then the authenticity premise says that you have to behave in accordance to these “fundamental” states or aspects which is what you “really are” or you would be a hypocrite and untrue and false to yourself. In short, you need to be “authentic” and “real” to your internal state.

It’s application to homosexuality is quite obvious. Given the fact that people generally refused to break down or analyse the homosexual experience, it is immediately assumed that authenticity demands that self-identified homosexuals (whatever that means) act in accordance to their internal state or subjective inclinations. If a gay man marries a woman, he is “living a lie”, being “fake”, “untrue to himself”, etc. Authentic action is necessarily derivative from the “heart” (which is conveniently via the romantic premise identified with one’s feelings). Mismatch between heart and action is condemned “hypocrisy” and inauthenticity.

But the authenticity premise should be considered a very odd premise, not only in Magisterial Protestantism, but in the light of our common experience of human nature. It assumes an absurdly idealistic notion of the internal life of individuals and, Disney and romance novels notwithstanding, common sense informs us that most people do not possess internal desires and inclination so perfectly aligned with objective intentions. The idea of an authentic heart so purely and absolutely devoted to a single person or object is nothing but a romantic fantasy. Contrary to the public impressions, your wife’s breasts will sag and that young secretary suddenly does become more sexually attractive to you. And no matter how handsome/beautiful one’s spouse may appear to you, there is always someone out there hotter than your spouse to tempt you.

Especially in those churches within the Magisterial Protestant theological tradition, the authenticity premise should be rejected outright based on two theological premises. First, the authenticity of Christian action is not a function of our internal state but in its conformity to the command of God’s word. Take this cup away from me, Jesus asks, not wanting to be crucified, but not my will but thine be done. Submission to the will of God requires that we deny ourselves and negate our own desires and wants in obedience to the word of God. Secondly, and more importantly, the idealisation of the internal state is contradicted by the doctrines of Original Sin and concupiscence which teaches that for those who are baptised and believe, even though their sins are forgiven them and will not be counted against them for condemnation, but desires of the flesh and lust contrary to the will of God will remain with us till our bodies perish and are risen anew at the general resurrection.

Are Homosexuals in Heterosexuals Marriages Living a “Lie”?

Acceptance of the authenticity premise is the foundation for the very prevalent, but entirely groundless, pastoral counsel, even in the most conservative of Christian circles, that self-identified homosexuals are called to a life of celibacy instead of heterosexual marriage. St Paul commands those who experience sexual passion to marry rather than burn. Nowhere in the Scriptures or even in the Church Fathers are those with “homosexual inclinations” (whatever that even means) to remain celibate and be condemned to singleness. But as a friend of mine told me what a Lutheran pastor has said with regards to this

you can be gay as long as you are celibate. This is the first step on the path to where the ELCA [a liberal Lutheran denomination] is today. It begins with distinguishing homosexual feelings from acts (Again try doing that with heterosexual lust and adultery; Jesus says you can’t in Matthew 5:28.). Step two is accepting celibate homosexuality. Step three is to accept homosexual acts. The reasoning that leads to this is as follows. We deny celibacy is a command from God in regard to heterosexuals, so how can say it is in the case of homosexuals? This in turn leads to the necessity of Step Four the acceptance of gay marriage. That’s the only acceptable way for homosexuals not to have to live a life of enforced celibacy.

Thus this extremely odd pastoral instruction, which completely arbitrarily instructs heterosexual burning with passion to marry while forbidding homosexuals from the same, cannot help but appear to be hypocritical, inconsistent, but most importantly, grounded neither in Scripture nor the tradition of the Church. By accepting both the romantic and authenticity premise, which determines the entirety of one’s sexual life from pleasure to desire to intercourse to relationship, one has already lost the debate and no amount of distinction between “orientations” and “actions” will save one’s position. It is simply astounding how entrenched the idea of the unity of the phenomenon of “sexual orientation” and the authenticity premise is in the minds of even the most conservative of Christians. The minute they hear, “homosexual orientation”, the immediate inference is, therefore can only want/enjoy gay sex and have gay relationship and should therefore deny these and cannot engage in any other form of sexual life.

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer doesn’t possess such a “romanticised” conception of marriage. While definitely an improvement over the Sarum Rite in its inclusion of the third cause of marriage as being “ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity”, the BCP has a somewhat functional view of sex, that is, “It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.” As far as marriage is concerned, its main purpose is not heightened sexual pleasure but merely sexual relief. And since many homosexuals do in fact have sex with their heterosexual spouses (any sexual act can more or less be accomplished with applications of friction to the appropriate areas), then this essential function has been fulfilled and nothing more is necessary. Of course it would be nice and a good if couples could enjoy their sex very much, but pleasure in sex is a somewhat accidental matter. Not everyone marries someone who’s physically attractive or sexually pleasurable, and certainly for most couples with age their physical sexual attraction would often be eclipsed by younger folks. Thus while sexual pleasure in marriage is a good creaturely delight, to be enjoyed whenever it has pleased God to give it, it constitutes neither the essence of marriage nor its essential content. (I have discussed rationale and possibility of homosexuals in heterosexual marriages at greater length here.)

Conclusion: The Antidote to Romantic Idealisation – Luther’s Doctrine of the External Word and Reason

There was a recent case about a Christian music star who had come out as gay even as he decides to leave his wife and children. Observe well the language by which this musician justifies his decision and compare it with the foregoing analysis. It should be clear to the minds of most that there is no qualitative distinction between abandoning one’s wife and children for another woman and doing the same for another man. Both decisions are normally justified in the same subjective terms of being true to their “feelings” or their “hearts”. But covenants calls us to higher duties than that of following fleeting passions.

Many arguments against same-sex marriage or homosexuality are mostly reactive, based on gut instincts rather than carefully reasoned positions. That this is so for the majority of Evangelical Christians is hardly surprising. Anglosphere Evangelicalism arose in the same era as English Romanticism, with its emphasis upon individual direct subjective experience with God’s grace. If indeed the Christian life cannot be understood or explained but must be “experienced” directly, then before the “direct” subjective experience of homosexual desires or inclinations the Evangelical is struck dumb, having already removed the tools for engagement even before the battle has began. If indeed a direct subjective experience of God does not permit of an explication or intelligent comprehension by the mind, how then can they justify a rational analysis of an equally direct subjective experience of homosexual desires?

The antidote to this Evangelical “enthusiasm” is Luther’s doctrine of the External Word. Faith is not an unintelligible experience but a grasping of a wholly intelligible Preached Word which proclaims the Gospel and enunciates the will of God for our salvation in meaningful and explicit terms. The mind understands the message, the conscience receives it, the will believes it, and the hands obey it. In Luther’s own bracing words,

And in  those things which concern the spoken, external Word, we must  firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except  through or with the preceding outward Word, in order that we  may [thus] be protected against the enthusiasts, i.e.,  spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before  the Word… For [indeed] the Papacy also is nothing  but sheer enthusiasm, by which the Pope boasts that all rights  exist in the shrine of his heart, and whatever he decides and  commands with [in] his church is spirit and right, even though  it is above and contrary to Scripture and the spoken Word.

All this  is the old devil and old serpent, who also converted Adam and  Eve into enthusiasts, and led them from the external Word of  God to spiritualizing and self-conceit, and nevertheless he  accomplished this through other outward words. Just  as also our enthusiasts [at the present day] condemn the outward  Word, and nevertheless they themselves are not silent, but they  fill the world with their pratings and writings, as though,  indeed, the Spirit could not come through the writings and spoken  word of the apostles, but [first] through their writings and  words he must come. Why [then] do not they also omit their own  sermons and writings, until the Spirit Himself come to men,  without their writings and before them, as they boast that He  has come into them without the preaching of the Scriptures?

Therefore we reject the primacy or supremacy of the subjective state and affirm St John’s words that we must “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1) and bring into “captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) and subject them to the judgement of the Word.

That our thoughts and affections maybe judged, they must be analysable and be able to be accountable to the Word. An intelligible account of these affections must therefore be possible. As such, no infallible unanalysable a priori feelings or identity or subjectivity exists which can escape from the analysis and judgement of the Word. We have to remember that ultimately, the homosexual experience constitutes an immediate existential crisis for the individuals who experience it, as long as the experience remains in the darkness of ambiguity and uncertainty, the crisis and disorientation remains. We have been given both the grace of the Scriptures and providence of our natural reason to shed light upon this experience which has been subject to much uncertain disputes and ambiguities, and thereby to dispel the darkness of this crisis unto the certain light of the Logos who has brought us out of darkness unto his saving light.

The internal life world of subjects is ultimately part of the same creation which has its source in the Logos, the Word made flesh, and as such, despite being twisted and obscured by sin, still retains a semblance of its former intelligibility and order. It therefore remains embedded in a rational system which can be intelligibly grasped by right reason, and as such, can be rationally broken down, clarified and be more clearly understood. And with that, I leave you with the words of Walter Davies and Rowan Williams.

No depth exists in subject until it is created. No a priori identity awaits us… Inwardness is a process of becoming, a work, the labour of the negative. The self is not a substance one unearths by peeling away layers until one gets to the core, but an integrity one struggles to bring into existence.

Walter Davies, Inwardness and Existence

For if there is no pre-existent ‘inwardness’, where is the ‘real’ self to be found or made but in the world of exchange- language and interaction. More particularly, this statement… makes it clear that the self is a self-conscious product of time. We tend to conceive interiority in terms of space- outer and inner, husk and kernal; what if our ‘inner life’ were better spoken of in terms of extension in time? the time it takes to understand?

Rowan Williams, Interiority and Epiphany: a Reading in New Testament Ethics

5 thought on “Why Discourses and Arguments on Homosexuality are so Poor and Unpersuasive; Subjective Experience as an Unanalysable “Black Box””

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *