Why I don’t think that the current catchphrase “you can’t choose who you fall in love with” is an argument for same-sex marriage or the morality of sexual acts between people of the same sex.
Disclaimers: I am not saying in what follows that to have homosexual inclinations is a choice. I am conscious of – and deeply troubled by – the inconsistency within my church institution, in sanctioning things that are against the New Testament standard of chastity for people who are heterosexual, while being strict (in theory at least) about them in people who are homosexual. Granted, I want consistency restored in the direction of restoring New Testament standards of chastity for heterosexuals at the institutional level, but I do recognise the real grievance and the real inequality in upholding these standards for one group of people and throwing them out for another.
I am not not NOT saying that sexual activity between two consenting adults, no matter how unethical I’d argue it is, is evil on the level of rape, particularly of the rape of the most vulnerable and the most entitled to protection and respect – i.e. children. And I do not, in any context, argue that something should be illegal merely because it is unethical. Moreover, I appreciate the historical need certain groups of people had to disassociate themselves vigorously from those who were trying to argue not for the legality of non-violent sexual acts between consenting adults in private, but for the removal of necessary and legitimate protections from children, and the cultural inconsistency I’m pointing out may partly result from that.
Now I shall proceed regarding what this post is actually about!
The current catchword for the liberal agenda on homosexuality seems to be, “choose love”. “You can’t help who you fall in love with, how you feel about sex, therefore, same-sex marriage and sexual acts between people of the same sex etc. must be good and right between people who are that way inclined”.
What I wish to argue is that this “therefore” is not actually correct. (That is, that the premise is true but that the conclusion does not follow).
It is a fundamental – and I believe quite correct – insistence of the agenda that uses the “choose love” type catchword, that people are not responsible for their romantic or sexual inclination: therefore, that this should not be subject to moral judgement, and I feel they tend to imply that it must follow that this means it must be good and right to indulge that inclination.
But one cannot then consistently say, as I feel our society tends to: “homosexuals and heterosexuals merely develop differently; this is completely involuntary,” and “paedophiles are inherently disgusting”, as if people with that sexuality are making the moral choice to have that inclination.
That is, if we assume that the development of a sexuality is not voluntary, and should always be respected and acknowledged as part of the person, we have to assume that this is so for everyone, including those whom we currently still condemn merely for being what they are, and who, it is a reasonable guess to say, are probably made to find it more difficult to be virtuous by the social disgust for their natural inclination (given that this seems to be what it has been like for people who are homosexual in the recent past). Acceptance of their experience and support in acting rightly towards children would be a far better response from society than condemning people because they are tempted to misuse children.
I don’t need to argue the case that it is evil to actually use children sexually – that is now mutually accepted on every side of this debate – however much some people on either side have failed to live it, or have wrongly condoned those failing to live it. (Our guilt as Christians is greater because we ought to be upholding a higher standard).
However, the fact of paedophilia, and the fact that it is agreed in the case of people who are paedophiles, that they must be celibate, means that it can never follow merely from the fact of a romantic or sexual inclination that it is right to act upon it. We cannot define doing what we are inclined to do as “love”, regardless of other considerations. Of course, this is not an argument for the whole of traditional Christian chastity ethics, but it is one of the main reasons why I feel that the “choose love” argument is not merely inconclusive, but actually false. It isn’t an argument for the things it purports to be an argument for. I find it deeply frustrating to be continuously bombarded with it as though it obviously ought to change my mind!
However, while I don’t think “you can’t help who you fall in love with” offers any moral conclusion about what it is right to do sexually or romantically, it does dictate certain things about the right pastoral approach. That is, we should not be saying to our young people “trust God and he will make you straight” – that does not seem to be true – but “trust God and he will help you find chastity and true flourishing – as he does all those of us who experience these things differently from you”. And this should be what is said to a teenager who is developing paedophilia as much as it is to anyone else. In fact, I get the impression that a lot of people who are heterosexual, particularly those from certain places and certain church cultures, have also been taught to regard their involuntary sexual desires as wrong in themselves. It is important to make sure it is understood that sins of thought in this matter are what we deliberately do (like consciously indulging a fantasy of being in bed with the last attractive person we met in the street), not what we involuntarily think or feel (such as a picture of that person undressed coming randomly and disconcertingly into our heads).
As a philosopher and a Christian I would of course say to people who are homosexual, as to all others, “choose love”. But the set of actions which I think constitute choosing love are not those of the liberal agenda. What I would say in this context is: “choose love. Be physically celibate*. Choose the love which goes deeper than involuntary feeling, and respects the fact that the bodies of two people of the same sex are neither adapted nor designed for sexual activity with each other.”
The body in Christianity is part of the person, a good part of the person, and its biological and personal nature should be thoroughly and completely respected in the context of any sexual act. I am always frustrated, actually, by the similar argument in the context of Ellis Peters’ work, where Brother Cadfael justifies his (heterosexual) affairs with statements along the lines of “it would be an insult to repent of loving a woman like Mariam”**. It is not of loving her that you are bidden repent, but of the fact that you did not treat her with the fullness of love, to either not receive her body, or to commit your whole person utterly to her in marriage until the death of one of you***.
I am not, in saying that true love is deeper than involuntary emotion opposing “true love” and “involuntary emotion” in any black/white way. True love often encompasses involuntary emotion, or is built thereon. Despite the fact that I don’t believe marriage is about “two people in love”, I wouldn’t recommend a man and a woman marry without affection of that type, as the level of spiritual maturity it would take in this culture and in these circumstances to come to “true love” within a marriage without building its practical side partly on “in love” and on long term friendship, seems to me to be astronomical. But true love, love that really seeks the good of the other, can also sometimes mean overcoming our involuntary preferences, as when a mother or father lets their infant child attempt to climb up the climbing frame without assistance for the first time, despite the fact that they’d rather keep them completely safe and not let them acquire the probable bruises!
To those who would say to me frustratedly “you just don’t understand”, I know that this is quite true. I am heterosexual, and I am, more fundamentally, not you. The only way I can understand your experience of these things is by trying to hear what you are saying about it. And that is very necessary for moral enabling and practical support. We do need to build Church communities that support and encourage people in living the demands of the Gospel, rather than ones that lay heavy burdens on people and will not move to lift them themselves.
However, it does not seem to me that “you don’t understand the experience” is an argument for a change of principle. This is partly because the arguments I am making as to what it is right to do or not do are based on the dignity and nature of the body as part of the human person. I think that to argue that we can change the dignity and nature of the body by what we think or experience is to argue that the body is a possession of the mind, rather than equally a part of the person, and I think that to be incorrect. Mental and emotional experience matter, but they aren’t things that can logically overturn principles based on the nature of the body, because these principles are based on things which in this context necessarily take precedence over mental and emotional experience if the body is also to be truly regarded with honour. (This argument potentially works in an atheist/secular context, in that it does not rely directly on theology, though the emphasis I put on the human body as part of the person is undoubtedly shaped by the Christian tradition).
Primarily, though, within Christianity, the principle is based on the idea that God loves us, and he therefore gives difficult commands only because it is truly better for us, not because he is out to get us. There is no way it is consistent with the scriptural narrative to say “because I find this difficult, because it will lead to suffering, because it isn’t what I want, it can’t be God’s will”. Gethsemane alone would rule that out. On the other hand, there is also no way that we should be indifferent to human suffering or struggling. If one part of the body suffers, all others suffer with them. It is important that the approach within the church be pastoral, not in the sense of changing the principles, but in the sense of acknowledging the real extent and nature of people’s challenges in living the Gospel.
Ultimately, I would argue that this whole issue of how one behaves sexually and romantically, for anyone regardless of their sexual/romantic inclination, is not about choosing love or not choosing love, but about coming to understand what it truly means to love.
* I oppose same-sex marriage because it would be illogical in the context of what I think marriage is, but I have no strong opinion either way on romantic but physically celibate relationships between two people of the same sex.
** I have not the book at present, so while I believe the attribution correct, this may not be a precise quote. The argument I am making does not rely on its source.
***See also 1 Corinthians 6:18, and the following verses.
People are welcome to comment. However, I suggest reading at least the disclaimers at the beginning again first (make sure you understand more or less what I’m really saying – or ask if I haven’t been clear), assume the goodwill of anyone who disagrees with you, and use arguments (“I think X because…”) rather than trying to shout others down.