Homosexuality – June 1999

Question: Has process thought anything to contribute to the debate about homosexuality?

Publication Month: June 1999

Dr. Cobb’s Response

It is obvious that one cannot move directly from a metaphysical or cosmological model to a particular doctrine about sexuality. One of the weaknesses of process theology for some time was that it limited itself largely to questions about how God is related to the world because those followed most directly from its philosophical sources. But a theology must address the issues that disturb the church, and process theology must show how its understanding of God and the world bears on the questions about celebrating homosexual unions and ordaining homosexuals.

Actually the connections are closer than one might think. This can be seen best by looking at the theological arguments against these acts. For the most part they are based on three sources: scriptural texts, natural theology, and a doctrine of the created order. A process perspective engages all three and proposes a different way of dealing with the issues. Since the third is in some ways an amalgam of the first two, for the sake of brevity, I will address only those.

A process perspective emphasizes the importance of history and tradition.  We are individually constituted by our life stories, and these are inseparable from larger communal stories. To whatever extent we identify ourselves with Christians, the still larger story of Israel and the church are our stories. It is from these that we gain meaning and direction in our lives. Since later parts of the story look to earlier parts as their authority, and since the earlier parts are known through the scriptures they produced, these scriptures are of great importance to us. 

Most of us are deeply grateful for the formative influences that have shaped our life stories. We celebrate what our parents and teachers and friends have done for us. But this does not mean that everything in our past is to be affirmed. We have taken missteps, and sometimes others, those we trusted most, have led us astray. We repent of our mistakes and sins.

This must characterize our relation to our Hebrew and Christian past as well. We are deeply grateful for the values they have given us and for the great lives that inspire us. It is through our shared story that we know God. Even when we criticize our forebears in the faith, we do so from a point of view that they have bequeathed us.

Still we must criticize. The Jewish scriptures tell the story of their heroes without concealing their failures and sins. That Christians have continued a history of failure and sin is overwhelmingly obvious. We must repent of much that we have collectively been. This includes biblical teachings, as, for example, the anti-Jewish teachings in the New Testament. 

Clearly the Bible is a thoroughly human document. That does not mean that it lacks inspiration. God was in those who wrote. But divine inspiration does not block out human historical conditionedness or human prejudice. We can agree that insofar as homosexuality is discussed in the Bible, the attitude toward it is negative. But that does not determine that our attitude today should be negative. Whether that negative attitude is to be reaffirmed or rejected in terms of far more basic Biblical teaching is to be decided anew in our time.

The Catholic argument appeals chiefly to natural law. Catholic thinking about natural law is based on a particular kind of teleology. The idea is that sexuality exists for a particular purpose. Traditionally the church limited this purpose to procreation and taught that all sexual acts not oriented to procreation are sinful.

This doctrine has been softened in various ways, but the connection between sexual intercourse and procreation remains the basic natural law argument against sanctioning homosexual acts. The background, less acknowledged now than in earlier centuries, is that sexual activity requires some other justification than the enjoyment it provides.

For process thought, enjoyment is a sufficient justification for activity — other things being equal. That is, every occasion aims at some enjoyment in itself and in other occasions lying in its future. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, that is the created order of things that we declare good. But, of course, that does not mean that other things are ever equal. Sexual acts that seek immediate gratification while ignoring the likelihood of an unwanted pregnancy or of disease are not morally acceptable. Sexual acts unwanted by one of the partners are wrong. Sexual acts of adults with children or that exploit authority in other ways are to
be rejected. Sexual acts that violate commitments made to others are immoral.

In addition to such strong negations of immoral sexual acts, Christians can rightly estalish our ideal of how sexuality is best expressed. Most Christians judge that long-term faithful pairing is important and that the ideal for sexual activity is that it occur in this context. That does not mean that all other sexual activity is to be judged always and everywhere wrong. But it does mean that a particular ordering of society for the encouragement of such partnerships is to be supported and this ideal is to be celebrated.

The burden of proof is thus located by process theology on the opposite side from the dominant Christian tradition. Whereas the tradition felt that sexuality was evil and that sexual acts required moral justification, process theology asserts that sexual activity is good. What requires justification is the demand that it be restricted to particular channels. If we hold up one pattern of sexual life as ideal, we need to explain why and how this, in the long run, contributes to the greatest enjoyment of those who adopt it and of others who make up the society.

With this reversal, the need for special justification for homosexual acts disappears. They are to be affirmed except as there are reasons to restrict them. Christians generally, rightly in my opinion, believe that there are many good reasons to restrict them, just as there are good reasons to restrict heterosexual acts, and that the ideal for them, as for heterosexual acts, is that they occur within committed relationships.

Through most of history it has been important to most societies to promote procreation. Most societies have pushed everyone toward marriage for this purpose. Some of them have been quite tolerant of homosexual activity as long as it supplemented, rather than replaced, procreation. We should not condemn our ancestors for seeking to channel sexual activity in these ways.  But today, in most of the world, the problem is too many people. The social reason for pushing people into heterosexual marriage no longer applies. There are still extremely important human reasons for encouraging such marriage for all those who desire it, but there are now good reasons to discourage those who are not sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex from entering such unions. For them unions with others with whom the desire is mutual are far better.

Many heterosexuals decry homosexuals because they are so often promiscuous. Surely the Christian response is not to condemn homosexuality but to encourage more responsible expression! If heterosexual marriage was outlawed and heterosexuals were humiliated when they showed lasting attachments, one wonders whether the result would not be that heterosexual promiscuity would increase.

For these reasons, the process perspective leads quite directly to the judgment that the church should sanction and celebrate both homosexual and heterosexual unions. The issue of ordination is one step more difficult.  Until the church sanctions, supports, and celebrates a lifestyle for sexually active homosexuals, ordination is awkward. But the proper response is not to pass strict rules against such ordination. The proper response is to sanction, support, and celebrate a Christian lifestyle for active homosexuals.

A final word is in order. Process theologians know that the point of view that informs them, while far from limited to those who have studied process metaphysics, is still a break from the point of view that has been identified as Christian by the dominant tradition. We believe it is, in fact, more deeply faithful to the Bible as well as to experience and reason. But we certainly understand how difficult it is for those formed, often unconsciously, by different philosophies and theologies, to break with their implications. 

Deeply entrenched is the notion of a Supreme Will who provides fixed moral laws applicable to all times and places and has revealed these laws once for all in the Bible. This notion provides security and clarity in a sea of secular relativism. The clarity of our own convictions that this is not a mature Christian view should not be translated into the judgment that those Christians who hold it are less mature or faithful than we. We can instead have confidence that step by step the Holy Spirit will lead all who are open to that guidance to a fuller and more appropriate understanding.  But meanwhile we will act on the light that we have.