Sunday, March 11, 2007

Fixing G-d's Mistakes

In today's email I came across two statements from religious conservatives that simply stopped me dead in my tracks. The first was from the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., who on March 2 asserted in his blog that he favored prenatal procedures to essentially undo sexual orientation in fetuses who would otherwise be born gay or lesbian.

His comment is stunning in a couple of ways. First, it essentially admits what everyone already knows - that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice, and thus not a matter of sin. While Mohler still hedged his bets by saying that there is "no incontrovertible or widely accepted proof," (it's always hard to admit that one has been dead wrong for several decades in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary although that's a lot shorter turnaround time than the Vatican required for dealing with Galileo) his admission that "the direction of the research points in this direction" along with his willingness to urge prenatal sexual orientation selection suggests that he knows the truth and probably has for awhile - sexual orientation is not a choice, regardless of what Baptist theology teaches.

Second, it no doubt unconsciously asserts that somehow Baptists know better than the G-d they allege they serve when it comes to human sexuality. There is no small amount of hubris in an assertion that we have to fix sexual orientation "mistakes" before babies are born, such mistakes ostensibly the work of the G-d whom even Baptists recognize is the author of all creation.

What could give rise to such a statement? Does the Dr. Mohler not recognize the enormous amount of hubris that such an assertion implicitly evidences? Perhaps the second statement gives us some hints.

Stand Firm is an organization of conservative Episcopalians who have self-servingly dubbed themselves "orthodox Anglicans" (as if such designations really mean anything of substance). Their website (as of today's date) features a column by an Episcopal priest, Matthew Kennedy, interestingly entitled "Embracing Pelagius." Kennedy raises some provocative points about the modern/traditional conflict through connecting them to Augustine of Hippo and his favorite whipping boy, Pelagius of Britain, the latter ultimately the loser in the battle for the minds - and ultimately the control - of Western Christendom.

But it's Kennedy's comments on the culture war over sexual orientation that stopped me cold:

"For the most part we’ve been willing grant the “scientific” evidence and admit the very real possibility (though the jury is still out) that homosexual orientation may well arise from inborn genetic or biological conditions. And because we have been able to admit this, many revisionists are slowly coming to the realization that what looked like ace is maybe a two. In fact, were a conclusive study demonstrating the inherent nature of homosexual desire to be published tomorrow, it would have absolutely no effect on the orthodox argument. Rather, in some sense, the orthodox argument would be strengthened because biblical faith and classic Christian doctrine assumes that human nature is itself fallen. We are, therefore, necessarily born with disordered desires"

I suppose such a convoluted argument makes sense to its maker. Again, I have to marvel at the hubris that this evidences - even in the face of science which demonstrates that sexual orientation is not a choice and therefore not capable of being a sinful choice, the "orthodox argument" is unfazed - human nature itself is sinful.

Of course, if the problem is "human nature" with its "disordered desires," such an affliction would apply to all human beings regardless of sexual orientation. And it's precisely the identification of only homosexual orientation as somehow the evidence of fallen human nature and disordered desires that reveals the real agenda here: the legitimation of homophobia.

In the past couple of months, I've been working on an application of Jean-Paul Sartre's concept of "bad faith" regarding arguments made in public discourse. Sartre's definition of bad faith is lying to oneself first and thereafter lying to others. This is not the same as being a generally deceitful actor. Rather, one lies to deny an unpleasant fact or to assert and thereafter affirm a pleasant falsehood in light of the facts to the contrary.

As Sartre says in The Problem of Nothingness,

"The essence of the lie implies in fact that the liar actually is in complete possession of the truth which he is hiding. A man does not lie about what is ignorant of; he does no lie when he spreads an error of which he himself is the dupe; he does not lie when he is mistaken. The ideal description of the liar would be a cynical consciousness, affirming truth within himself, denying it in his words and denying that negation as such."

The notion of cynical consciousness is helpful in understanding the two statements above. My mother was prone to add to her always gentle but firm criticism of wrongdoers that "they know better." And that is what makes the comments of the two speakers above not only reprehensible, it also makes it impossible to take their arguments made in bad faith seriously. They know better.

In the 1995 film Priest, a film about homophobia within Roman Catholicism and its destructive effects on a young gay priest in England, a wizened old parish priest remarks in his homily that when we fail to respect the good Creation that G-d has created, we spit in the eye of G-d. The assertion that we know better than G-d what sexual orientation a child should bear and that we should fix G-d's mistake in utero is an astonishing statement, and a rather large wad of phlegm hurled toward the eye of our Maker. The assertion that human nature is fallen and our desires disordered but only when they are homosexual in orientation is not only not only deeply homophobic, it ultimately asserts that what G-d has created can only be honored when it is just like us - the ultimate statement of self-idolatry.

There are many days I wish I could simply tune out statements like these made, no doubt, in sincerity and with the greatest of passion but ultimately lacking in respectability. I do not begrudge folks their beliefs even when they are simply untenable for people with even a modicum of intellectual honesty. But so long as the Baptists and self-proclaimed orthodox Anglicans of the world have any ability to influence public policy generally not to mention within those institutions of which I, as an Episcopal priest, am part, we do not have the luxury of ignoring these kinds of statements and hoping their makers will simply go away.

Clearly, time is not on their side. Ultimately, homophobia will not carry the day. But until that day, those of us who would fight the forces of ignorance, prejudice and the destructiveness those forces engender have no choice but to continue confronting the Mohlers and Kennedys of the world with a gentle but firm response: You know better. We all do.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.