Saturday, October 27, 2012

Vaughan Roberts and same sex attraction - Where to from here?

The magazine Evangelicals Now has been making some noise on the net with an interview with a minister, Vaughan Roberts, discussing his “struggle with same sex attraction”. The article has been mentioned on the Gospel Coalition site, a major U.S. evangelical and reformed theology site and by several Christian bloggers.

The article has also been blogged about by Andrew Brown of the Guardian. I found his post to be pretty poor in its insistence on re-labelling Vaughan Roberts as gay. I don’t object to re-labelling someone entirely – I’d re-label the Pope sexist and John Howard racist against their own identifications. But I don’t think it’s justified here. Vaughan Roberts gives reasons for not calling himself gay and I can respect them without agreeing with them. I don’t need to re-label him.

I disagree with Vaughan Roberts that gay sex is wrong. I think about right or wrong in such a spectacularly different way to Vaughan Roberts that saying gay sex is wrong is a little nonsensical to me. I have to consider the harms of any action to condemn it. I also consider matters of consent and rights and intent but harms are crucial. When looking at harms I don’t take broad statistics and say whether or not generally speaking something is harmful either. I try and be as specific as possible. Take driving a car for example. Is that wrong or right? Surely that depends on why and how you are driving a car. It would require me to adopt a supreme moral simplicity to ever be able to say that all gay sex is wrong… or right for that matter. It actually feels a lot easier to say that all car driving is wrong. (Except ambulances and fire engines … see what I mean)

In this regard I am not different to even those Christians who think homosexuality is wrong. If you asked many of those Christians if it was wrong to kill somebody almost all would answer that it depends. Many U.S. Christians took the same position about torturing people in Abu Ghraib; it depends. That’s something I find much harder to swallow. Certainly if you asked them if it was ok to drive a car they, like me, would recognize harms and benefits and ask for more information before making any call. A simple yes or no in these areas is generally considered as too simple by all of us.

In the matter of homosexuality, however, Vaughan Roberts and the Gospel Coalition take a dim view of any practice of it at all. I imagine that they might possibly consider homosexual rape worse than a homosexual date but even the latter is never “good”. They are able to give a simple no answer to all gay sex.

This moral position is hurtful to those who are trying to live good gay lives, who have made sacrifices for their partners, and whose loving relationships may feel like one of the best things they have done with their life. This moral position is saying all of that good feeling is misplaced and that in fact the moral heart of the universe (God) is deeply opposed to all that effort.

Vaughan Roberts specifically describes same-sex attraction as a temptation. He calls acting on that attraction sin. However before we respond to Vaughan from a position of hurt we should listen to what he doesn’t say to justify his attitude to homosexuality. In that silence I found reason to question exactly how I disagreed with him and whether any hurt made sense.

Vaughan doesn’t say anywhere that desires for a homosexual relationship reflect different priorities than desires for a heterosexual one. The very real possibility exists after this interview that gay desire is understood as just like heterosexual desire in its motivations. That’s huge. And by huge I mean massively, humongously gigantic.

Consider the difference between recognizing that:
a)      gay and straight relationships are both sought by people equally looking for someone to share their life with, to feel passion with, to make sacrifices for and to hold them while they cry over Amy and Rory’s story in Dr. Who and;
b)      Straight people are looking for the above but gay people are instead motivated by a desire to get back at daddy, spit in the eye of God, get one’s rocks off in any way possible and so on.
There is a long history of pathologising homosexual desire. This has been a cruelty to gay and lesbian people in and outside the church. Take the time to feel your desire to hug and hold your love. Imagine it being translated for you by counselors and ministers into hatred of a parent or of God or of your self. Imagine being taught to think in that language. The part of you that wants to creep a hand forward to touch the back of someone else’s, that does so timidly and lovingly, is supposed to be thought of as rebellious, God-hating, gladly perverse and mean. Challenging that language has been the preeminent struggle against church and psychology of the gay movements’ history. But Vaughan Roberts seems not to be found on the other side of that struggle.

The other thing that Vaughan does not say is that people’s lives are more terrible when they act out homosexuality than when they do not. That again is stupendously enormous. Indeed Vaughan recognizes celibacy as hard (and the way of the cross) while open gay relationships are attractive (though he attributes that to the devil). Vaughan does state that the benefits of remaining faithful to the bible have been promised in this life as well as the afterlife; however he specifically relates that to the loss of family (as in not getting married and having children in this case) and to persecutions. Vaughan doesn’t make a case for his choice of celibacy over homosexuality being reflected in emotional, material or health benefits intrinsic to those choices.

Consider again the differences between;
a)      If you experience same sex attraction you may obtain happiness if you pursue loving relationships with someone of the same gender or;
b)      No matter what the propaganda of the gay community, people who actively engage in sexual behaviour outside of married heterosexual relationships have short, unhappy and tragic lives.

Recently the head of the Australian Christian Lobby (an organization that is an embarrassment to many Christians) described homosexuality as more dangerous than smoking. Peter Jensen, Archbishop of the Sydney Anglicans shortly afterwards refused to distance himself from the comments on Australian television. “Catholic Answers” a website and magazine composed of Roman Catholic apologists makes similar claims that “homosexual behaviour kills homosexuals”. Opponents of homosexuality have tried to fold their morality into a concern for people’s health for as long as they have been prevented from just calling gay people witches. They tend to abuse general statistics on gay health indicators to support their case.

The gay movement has successfully improved this conversation about health by showing that a myriad of factors are involved. Evelyn Hooker, as long ago as 1957, proved that if gay people have communities to belong to with a positive self-image then there are no differences between straight and gay mental health. Increasingly the positive lives of gay people who are not reeling from family exclusion and social condemnation have been able to be public examples to younger gay people. Gay advocates have exposed the hypocrisy of shaming and isolating organizations like the Catholic church claiming to teach what is best for gay health. There are real parallels between this struggle and the struggle of indigenous people in Australia to challenge the language of their oppressors in calling them “a doomed race”. However Vaughan Roberts just isn’t on the other side of this struggle either.

Vaughan Roberts seems to answer both the question of the motivation of homosexuality and of the harms with what I listed as option a. (see both a) and b) points above). However the b) points are what I assume to be implied by those Christians who say that homosexuality is wrong. That’s because of the people in the name of Christianity who make those specific claims and it’s because it’s hard for me to see how you could agree with position a) in both questions and yet still say that gayness is wrong. I could only say that gay sex is always wrong if I believed that;
  • homosexual and heterosexual desire for relationship are not basically the same aspiration
  • and a gay life is consistently observably harming.
Grossly simplifying the whole discussion, people advocating for the celebration of same sex relationships want to move people from position b) to position a) in regard to the above two questions. That is really the entirety of the debate for someone like myself. In Vaughan’s piece it very much seems to me that he is already there or at least is able to be there without contradicting anything he says in his interview. My arguments and indeed those of any gay movements whose history I know are exhausted once Vaughan gets to option a) in both questions. How then can he and I still disagree?

Vaughan gives one reason and one reason only, for saying that he shouldn’t act on his same-sex attraction. He believes that it is the opinion of his scriptures. I do disagree with him on this. I disagree both that his scriptures are all that clear on the issue of homosexuality and that his scriptures reflect anything more than opinions on moral matters. I don’t believe they are authoritative in the way he uses them. But seriously what am I going to have to do to win those arguments? His opinion that these texts are authoritative and inerrant (and mean what he thinks) is really beyond my hope of changing with argument. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, it can be possible for a person to have a magic book that simply can never be properly tested. I remain pessimistic about that kind of discussion.

What really interests me is the question of if that is his only argument, does it matter? If both he and I agree that homosexual and heterosexual attraction should be viewed as similar motivations and that a person might find (and bring to others) happiness in a same-sex relationship then can we oddly agree to disagree on the actual morality of homosexual behaviour? Vaughan really seems to be saying that the only reason homosexuality is wrong is the attitude of his God. That puts a gay lover at risk of metaphysical harms – i.e. Gods punishment, however I don’t believe in either that God or his punishment. It follows then that Vaughan hasn’t said anything with meaning for me. Can I therefore feel hurt by that? Should I simply say that that is his religion and I have mine?

I’m not sure about any conclusion to this. I am not interested in either sowing dissension or even striving for consensus for no good reason. Vaughan sounds just as concerned as I am about the lack of love shown people who experience same sex attraction. Maybe we should just agree to disagree. I really like his views on whether sexual orientation can change as well. But so much still seems unresolved. If a happy and healthily motivated gay relationship can still be called sin that’s not where I’d hoped we’d end up. I thought being able to convince people that gay lives weren’t sick and suffering ones would mean they would also say gay is ok. It may not though, because of some people’s allegiance to the words in their magic book.  I really don’t know where a conversation could go from here.

I realize I have made “an argument from silence”, that is I have made an act of speech out of what Vaughan hasn’t said. This ignores that he might say it elsewhere (such as in his book which I haven’t read). Or that his silence may mean something else than how I’ve interpreted it. If you think that’s the case based on knowing him better please comment. I do think it’s a pretty loud silence on his behalf given the history and context I’ve outlined.


  1. Hey Tony, great blog. I do think the stalemate sometimes comes down to first principles - whether God is real and has spoken or whether he hasn't. I must say that your constant use of the term "magic book" is slightly condescending. I don't believe in a book that is magic and I don't think Vaughan does either. But I do believe in a God (who you might define as a "magic being" who can communicate and that communication be faithfully recorded in a book. There is a vast difference to that, compared to say Islam that believes the Koran can not be translated at all or the "Golden Plates" of Mormonism. Maybe the tablets that held the 10 Commandments could be said to be a "magic book", but I think you shouldn't lump them all together under that title that clearly intends it to be seen as slightly silly (like me calling your conscious a "silly little voice in your head").

  2. Simon,
    I had a little chuckle at the description of my conscience as that "silly little voice in your head". I think that's a very apt description. I just think that you and me both have a very serious responsibility to heed our silly voices. I don't think my conscience is super-wise so much as it is all I've got.)

    There are many, many Christians who do not consider their scriptures to be a magic book. I say as much in my blog on that topic. That is precisely why the term magic book is absolutely important. I use it to distinguish a special relationship that some Christians (no less than Muslims or Mormons it seems to me) have with their text. In that special relationship the Bible is more than a book ABOUT God, it is exactly in the form it is with no missing parts, something OF God, akin in a way to a face of God.

    This magic book idea can be seen when people refer to the letters of Paul as if they were the words of Jesus, or even say that Jesus wrote the whole bible. That's right they don't even bother to say that God wrote it all. They directly attribute it to Jesus - who after all is God. That's a magic book. It is one thing to argue that God says/said the bits in the Bible which it says God says. That's an argument over historicity. Only magic can mean that God says what Paul says.

    What I wouldn't call a magic book is when the Bible is seen as a document that points to historical events, stories, memories, experiences of God - that is ABOUT God. In this understanding Paul is a theologian/minister, John (authoring Revelations) is making a prophecy, Luke is more of a historian and so on. They are not Jesus or God. In fact the question of why Jesus didn't write any scriptures becomes feasible when we don't have a magic book.

    This stills challenges us to respond to the events and opinions recorded in the bible. That's a challenge many respond to by becoming Christians. A vibrant Christianity is definitely possible without a magic book. Its just that amongst reformed and evangelical Christians, magic book Christianity is more popular.

    As for comparing the Bible to the Koran, those Christians who believe the bible is a magic book, generally believe its magic is preserved despite translation, which is even more magic than saying it mustn't be translated in my opinion.

  3. Just a comment on your last point, "those Christians who believe the bible is a magic book, generally believe its magic is preserved despite translation, which is even more magic than saying it mustn't be translated in my opinion."
    I don't understand this. I the idea that the words are inspired by God (not dictated by God), resulting in truth about God that is authoritatively true, then why does translating that truth somehow make it less from God?

    For example, Paul writes, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." (Romans 3:23-24). Now if he made that up, then who cares? If he was inspired or led or directed to write that by God, then we should sit up and take notice. But he originally wrote it in Greek, so is the translation into english any less God's Word? I don't think so. We have to make sure we get the translation right, but the "magic" part is that the truth comes from God, not that the actual ink on papyrus is magic.

  4. Hey Tony I've looked through the chapter on homosexuality from Vaughan Roberts' book, "Battles Christians Face".

    He looks at the change of social attitude to homosexuality and the stats on how many experience ssa. He makes the point that "human sexuality is more complicated than is commonly imagined and is perhaps best seen as making up a complex spectrum" (pg 105).

    He looks at causes for ssa, stating straight up that "there is no clear consensus as to why people experience same-sex sexual attraction" and
    concluding that "no theory of causation fits every individual" (pg 107).

    He then goes on to look at "How Does God View Homosexuality?" This is obviously where you may differ greatly, but you will be encouraged to see that his message, though not condoning homosexual practise, is one of God's universal love and welcome. One quote that seems to summarise what he says is, "We are not to feel guilty or condemned because of our temptations, whether homosexual or heterosexual, but nor should we express them sexually, except in heterosexual marriage" (pg 108).

    He moves on to then explain this position in detail and gives an overview of the Biblical framework in which he reaches this understanding. He explains the "Christian Worldview" covering Creation, Fall, Redemption and New Creation and showing how these big picture ideas relate to homosexuality.

    He then tackles some of the key verses and passages in Scripture that specifically address the subject of homosexual behaviour. Now although you might disagree with his use of these texts as relevant for today, you'll be pleased to note he tackles them not simply in a "see the bible says it there" sort of way, but asks the questions of if this passage is worth using or how to apply it. For example, he does look at the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but concludes, "The sin the rabble threatens is gang rape, which is obviously unacceptable whether it is heterosexual or homosexual. These passages should not be used to argue against homosexual sex in general" (pg 113). Despite this though, he does explain how various passages do clearly teach that homosexual practise is "a departure from God's creation design for sex" and states that "the Bible is entirely consistent on the subject; homosexual practise is only ever mentioned negatively".

    This is an important point to make, because as you say in your blog, "I disagree...that his scriptures are all that clear on the issue of homosexuality". Even amongst those that believe the Bible is true and authoritative, there is a growing opinion that homosexual practise is ok with God. I think that actually simply reflects poor knowledge of Scripture rather than an enlightened modern understanding of how to interpret the Bible.

    But anyway, back to the summary...

    Vaughan goes on to explain some encouraging "Truths to Remember" including "The gospel is liberating", "Suffering is expected", "Change is possible" and "Friendship is vital".

    Up until this point, Vaughan's audience has primarily been Christians who experience SSA, but he concludes the chapter with "A Challenge to the Churches". He makes three points saying, "Renounce prejudice", "Don't compromise on truth" and "Live as God's family".

  5. Simon, Thanks heaps for that summary. I disagree with Vaughan as you say, but I sure feel like I would enjoy talking with him. He seems to be a very thoughtful commentator.
    I also take your point about the matter of translation. I was referring to those who don't feel they "have to make sure we get the translation right" as you say because they trust in the holy spirit to have governed that process as much as it governed the selection of the canon and the original writing. I think you would agree that in their case that their texts magic is very strong (stronger than even the Korans). Worth noting there are a lot of diversity in how translation is treated... and where the miraculous authority of scripture stops.

  6. I really like Stanley Hauerwas' comments on Christianity and LBGT people with regard to the military.

    He argues that resentment against homosexuals comes from a broader cultural uncertainty about our moral convictions.

    "This moral confusion leads to a need for the illusion of certainty. If nothing is wrong with homosexuality then it seems that everything is up for grabs. Of course, everything is already up for grabs, but the condemnation of gays hides that fact from our lives. So the moral "no" to gays becomes the necessary symbolic commitment to show that we really do believe in something."

    Some of the article is quoted in here (I have the full article floating around somewhere)

    Someone once said that the logical outcome of postmodernity is tribalism. As the postmoderns showed us, if we cannot apprehend objective truth as objective truth, then we have no definitive framework for ascertaining morality. Given the huge diversity of belief we see and the lack of a way of validating any one moral imperative, the reasons we select one belief over another is, to a large extent, arbitrary. Given this, the easiest way of justifying a moral system is to define yourself over and against others (i.e. my tribe is better than yours).
    I think this is what Hauerwas gets at, and why Christians attack gays but not the military machine. Because nationalism, and being against homosexuality have become 'master signifiers' - arbitrary signposts that allow a group to define themselves, by defining yourself over and against others, in a less homogenous society where it is becoming increasingly harder to do.

  7. Note: sorry about the appalling grammar. Hope it is still readable.

  8. Daniel, I had no problems with the grammar; better than my own I'd say. I'm very much enjoying digesting the ideas you've raised. The article you linked to was great as well.

    There definately is something operating to produce Christian denouncement of homosexuality other than the fidelity to their text that they claim.

    Consider the comments by Jesus used to criticise homosexual acts. They are Jesus' words to the Pharisees regarding the question of divorce and remarriage. (Jesus says no.) Its a ridiculously long bow to argue this says anything about homosexuality at all - however its used by Christians for that purpose who aren't even opposed to remarriage itself!

    Personally I think its good exegesis to say that Jesus is specifically answering a question of justice in his culture and not making a rule for all marriages for all time. It seems consistent with his ministry that he would be motivated by the abandonment of women in his time when women relied on the support of husbands and not laying a yoke on the shoulders of people in different circumstances (such as women trying to leave abusive husbands).

    However that careful and considered exegesis is thrown out the window in regard to homosexuality even in this exact instance of the text. I could go on (and just might in another blog). My point is that the Christian problem with gayness is so weakly associated with their text it seems obvious it has other driving forces.

    I don't think its an entirely arbitrary signifier of identity though. There is an uneasiness with the body and pleasure, depraved as it is. Then there is a protestant over-celebration of marriage as way of knowing God - a vocation equal to the priesthood. Lastly there is old-fashioned patriarchy which requires discrete and universal gender categories (male headship anyone?).

    Gayness embodies desire, romantic love or just mundane companionship over dutiful pro-creative sex and holy vocational marriage. More importantly gayness disrupts male-female hierarchies. There is a lot of ideas bound up in anti-homosexuality that will take some time to untagle for Christianity. Some churches have already done that work but others have no inclination to.

    I do agree though that this issue has also become a kind of litmus test of blind faith. Its become important to hold on to a moral objection that is pointedly not justified by reason. It's sometimes like opposition to homosexuality is a kind of circumcision - an act that is moral for its own sake (as identification) rather than for any reason at all. It is probably no accident that this cross chosen to bear as "master signifier" is one that is weightless for many Christians and excessively heavy for a minority.

    Thanks for your great comment.

  9. "I don't think its an entirely arbitrary signifier of identity though. There is an uneasiness with the body and pleasure, ...a protestant over-celebration of marriage ... old-fashioned patriarchy."
    Point taken. I agree that the theology itself isn't arbitrary, but would want to argue that the way it is deployed is (i.e. hammering gays and not the military). After all, why should homosexuality, or inerrancy, or abortion, or complementarianism be used as " kind of litmus test of blind faith" and not another doctrine, like pacifism, which appears more strongly in Jesus teaching? The reasons ultimately must simply be cultural.

    By the way, Reading a really interesting blog by a guy at an obviously fairly liberal seminary. You really should check this out. There is some very,very funny stuff on this blog, but also some fairly thought-provoking points.