August 20, 2009

Friends, Romans, and Pagans

Over at Hobdee again, I was challenged on my assertion that natural law arguments derived from pagan philosophy form the major part of the traditional case against same-sexuality. One need only look at Aquinas to see a typical example; while he of course mentions the Scripture to support his argument, his primary appeal is to natural law.

Such an appeal to pagan concepts of natural law as opposed to Scripture on this issue go back to St. Paul himself in Romans 1, in his only extended comment on male homosexual acts. (As those who have read my book will know, whether he is referring to female homosexual acts or not is an open question; it is as likely, and more consistent with the argument he is making, if the reference is to women who "exchanged the natural use" by allowing their husbands, as the rabbis would say, "to turn the table" and make use of "penetration by the other way" -- at least that is how Clement of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo understood Paul.)

Paul himself critiques all of this behavior on pagan grounds, concerned as he is in this chapter with the pagans to whom he refers: those having failed to perceive God who is evident in nature and are convicted on the basis of their own understanding of and failure to abide by "natural law" derived from Stoic philosophy.

Jewish biblical law, as I hope most of you know, does not forbid lesbianism, nor "turning the table" between husband and wife. So Paul's appeal here must be to an extra-biblical law, in order to frame a cogent argument — since he is speaking of those "outside the law [of Moses]." This is also why NT Wright and others who read Genesis into Romans 1 are mistaken — the Gentiles to whom Paul refers didn't know Genesis, but, as Paul argues, should have been able to see what was right from nature, to which they did have access. That's point one of Paul's thesis. He then, of course, goes on to point two: blast those who relied on the Law of Moses for salvation.

That is the whole object of Paul's case, after all, in Romans: Gentiles are not saved by following natural law, Jews are not saved by following the Law of Moses — because no one is perfect in following any law at all. Law cannot save. All are saved, Jew and Greek alike, not by their own conscientious following of any law, but by Jesus Christ, and him alone, by grace through faith.

That is Paul's Gospel.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Closed said...

As with my comment on Genesis, to get the rhetorical and theological point, the text must be proclaimed. The Scholatist method which many of our Puritans took up in new form is foreign to a text meant to be proclaimed. Only in it's proclamation is the text living word. The Fathers poured over scripture, but their study remained liturgical. To pull the text apart from its liturgical heart turns the text into something it is not meant to be.

Murdoch Matthew said...

It seems to me that Paul in Romans is simply wrong -- the purposes of God are not clear from meditating on nature. Too many people have done it and come up with a myriad of interpretations. That makes Paul's illustration of the point, men who turn away from the obviously right use, wrong as well. Paul wants to create a sense of guilt in everyone so he can propose a remedy -- a trick the church has exploited throughout its history. When I realized that my desires weren't shameful, and finding love wasn't a sin, the mystique of church largely disapated for me.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Christopher, exactly: Romans 1 is probably the most poorly proclaimed chapters in Scripture, particularly the way NT Wright and others proclaim it. I would say that their version is actually a perversion, since it misses Paul's ultimate message in favor of his straw-man.

Thanks, Murdoch. Although "natural law" still has its supporters, it is far too easy to read one's own prejudices into nature; and in some sense it begs the question massively. I'm not entirely sure how seriously Paul takes the natural law argument he advances -- for rhetorical purpose rather than because he believes it -- as he clearly rejects it ultimately as being no help in righteousness: no law can make one righteous, natural or positive.

June Butler said...

In the 1950s, I attended a Jesuit university, where I was required to study 6 semesters of philosophy, principally Scholastic Philosophy, (plus 8 semesters of theology!), and the natural law loomed large in the courses. I remember Aquinas was the master, and Aristotle was often mentioned.

The best and most useful course of all was logic, which was not Scholastic logic, but just plain logic, where I learned a bit about how to think and reason, of which skill too many in our society today seem to have no grasp whatsoever.

Whatever happened to all that theology? It seems gone with the wind. I could have been a priest with all those courses behind me, but not really.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I think for years I have read this text by Paul, a first century Jew, who has all kinds of cultural views about people (such as that women who cut their hair have surrendered their glory), who can thus simply be assumed to disapprove of the practice he condemns.

But when we start from the text, not assumptions about what the text must mean, the point is that the practice of which Paul disapproves (whatever exactly it is) is evidence of the punishment, not the crime.

He is dealing with Gentiles who may claim they were excused condemnation because they did not have the law, and reading this off as a practice to show they are morally responsible and culpable (a rebours, as the French put it) thus falling under the "all have sinned" conclusion of chapter 3.

Any attempt to claim this is some kind of specifically wicked sin, whatever it is, is, to that extent starting from the wrong end as far4 as the text itsef is concerned.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

GM, the natural law tradition is still alive, though I think in its last stages. John Finnis tries to make a case for its revival, but I think fails rather badly in the end as his own prejudices and preconceptions become evident -- the very trap by which "natural" is come to mean "what all good and rational people believe" and then excludes from "good and rational" those who think otherwise. It becomes an instance of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy.

Thank you Bishop Wilson; the singling out of whatever it was Paul was speaking of as particularly nasty in our context (whatever it was in his) is exactly part of the problem in contemporary discourse. It is likely, since he is writing to those familiar with the Law in both Torah and Oral Tradition, and (as you say) as a 1st c. Jew himself, that this is a peculiarly Gentile failing (i.e., No Good Jew Would Do Such a Thing! -- "Israel is not suspected" as Kiddushin 81-82 puts it) which also adds impact to the fall of the axe at the beginning of Chapter 2, and leads inexorably to his rhetorical "statement of the problem" in Chapter 3.... and then on to the unpacking of the Solution!

Thanks for dropping by.

Anonymous said...

"Over at Hobdee again,..."

Um... What's Hobdee?


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Bookguy -- that's my pronounced version of HoB/D -- House of Bishops/Deputies Listserv...

IT said...

There is a real problem with observational biology in seeing not what animals are doing, but what you interpret them to be doing from the context of one's own social upbringing or biases.

This was particularly noticeable for homosexuality (which is turns out is quite common throughout the animal kingdom) but also for any other "variant" behavior such as matriarchal societies, or those with non-binary gender distributions; there are some fish species, for example, where there are three types of males that interact in complex ways, but for some time two of these were viewed as "servants" or "lesser" than the traditional Big Male and Female binary dynamic.

The myth of the peaceable chimpanzee is another such, where it turns out they can be quite violent to each other and to other mammals.

Basically it's impossible to be fully objective with any observation that requires a behavioral interpretation.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks IT. I was speaking less of "arguments from nature" (also, as you say, dodgy) than "natural law" which at least in some forms is "that which all decent people know (or ought to know) to be wrong" -- which in many forms is simply a grand circular argument. And we hear it quite often in discussion of Teh Gay. Finnis is just one recent example.

But you are right on when it comes to the use of the animal/vegetable world in discussions of human virtue. The odd thing is that so many are willing to get caught up on the physical/biological level (which we share with animals) rather than look to the human qualities of love, fidelity, and generosity as the loci for the morality of human sexuality. That it turns out same-sexuality is common among animals kind of wrecks what amounts to a rather silly argument from the get-go. It makes as much sense as building a moral argument by beginning, "As we all know, the earth is the center of the universe, and as such...."

People are as able to mis-read nature as much as the Bible! And on your final point, I'm not sure it is possible to be truly and fully objective about anything -- everything is about relationship, especially language: how much more the unspoken language of the natural world? We will all project our feelings and thoughts onto "grand" waterfalls and "majestic" mountains and "desolate" deserts -- gi8ving inanimate objects emotional weight; and how much worse do we do with animals, misreading as a smile what is actually a fear-response?

We are hedged about with so many unknown unknowns, preconceptions, misconceptions, projections, omissions, and ignorances. It is probably best for us to do as Job did, after God paraded all the grandeur of the creation before him, challenging his understanding and competance, "I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know..."

June Butler said...

It seems to me that those on the side of equality who allow themselves to be drawn into arguments based on proving or disproving whether sexual orientation is a choice through biology or genetics go off on a tangent. We should simply say that we believe LGTB folks when they say, "This is who I am". Who would know better?

IT said...

Tobias, I agree. My point was not finished, which is that it is probably a folly to pretend to be objective in these observations. Rather, we always should acknowledge the biases we bring to the table. Then the question is, how to find an objective truth? Is there one?

I believe there is a truth (I am a scientist after all) and a rule for how things behave (such as how an enzyme functions mechanically). However, in complex behaviors, I think that unless one can miraculously see the world through the eyes of the one being observed, we can only approach the "Truth" of their behavior, or experience, asymptotically.

This leads to an inevitable ambiguity and as I've frequently argued, a need to embrace the ambiguity as itself.

Then how to deal with the ambiguity? Some are confident of themselves in spite of it, others riven with insecurity because of it. I think we must first do no harm, and err, if error it is, on the side of mercy, generosity, and forbearance. Which is not to say that we don't have expectations or standards, but that we acknowledge our own biases and do our very best to see with the eyes of the Other.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

GM, I agree entirely. The whole "nature" argument is pointless in the long run because there is no clear premise: "What is natural is good." That seems to be the underlying premise on the conservative side, but as soon as you show that same-sexuality meets that test (whether in terms of the natural world or natural reason) they immediately shift the ground -- because their position, in the long run, is not based on a rational concept but a prejudice (an untestable premise).

IT, thanks for this. I admit to a similar belief in truth ("what Is") and also our limitations in coming to understanding about that truth. And you use the same word I would to describe our task: it is asymptotic -- we grow close to Truth but we can never contain (comprehend) it because it contains us!

Tim said...

Oof. Romans 1 is an exegetical nightmare because it's a comprehensional blighter.

Personally, I find the best way is to start around v24 and work *backwards* through Paul's argument. Those of conservative/homophobic inclination concentrate far too much on "exchanged natural passions" to the detriment of "For this reason God gave them over", a phrase which occurs 3x over in that passage and makes God partly culpable!
And, working backwards, why would God do such a thing? Because (v22-23) they "exchanged the glory of God", becoming idolaters.

Working back further towards vv 19 and 18, the passage has a primary purpose of being an exposition on understanding God's transcendence through nature, not getting stuck in studying the natural universe only - and totally nothing to do with some call to conservative moral values!
And in that I think we come to the same kind of conclusion, at least :)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Yes, Tim; that is exactly the problem with the conservative reading (as in NT Wright and others) -- they actually end up "worshipping the creature" in their dogged insistence that the natural order's revelation of God gives some crucial salvific meaning to heterosexuality -- and risk making heterosexuality an idol in the form of hieros gamos. I'm not making this up: check out the upcoming symposium of "Mere Anglicanism" to take place in South Carolina -- a meeting centered on the "Revelation" aspects of Gender and Sexuality. With folks like Gagnon, Murchison, Nazir-Ali, on board I think we can safely guess at the conclusions to be reached.