Friday, February 16, 2007

God Bless Mother Nature

I am so ready to be done with this book I've been reading for the past million months! I'm at a point now where I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I'm longing to sink my teeth into a good fictional story after all this historical research! That having been said, this book really has opened my mind to many relevant issues and factors that impact how gay people are treated in today's society. Surprisingly enough, it wasn't always this way and the author takes you through the growth of intolerance toward minorities (Muslims, Jews and gays) in Europe up to the 14th century. (*semi-spoiler alert*-It's actually not the fault of the Christian church which had co-existed happily with gay members in government and clergy for over 1,000 years!)

One of the ideas that I learned about was the concept of nature. As you may have heard before, gay people are often criticized as "unnatural." There are many ways to define "nature"- the most common would be the "essence or the character of a person." For example when Miss Coco Peru says in my favourite flick Trick: "Oh Gabriel.. Gabriel Gabriel Gabriel. Look, I'm not one to gossip. It's not my nature. Truth. Truth. Now that's my nature." Another example would be when a straight actor plays "gay for pay" we would say it would be "going against his/her nature." Alfred Kinsey stated "The only unnatural sex act is the one which you cannot perform." By this definition of nature, most people would agree that being gay could be natural for a given individual. (Unless of course one believes in reparative/conversion theraphy- the kind that cured Rev. Ted Haggart in less than one miraculous month!)

This is also the definition of nature that the apostle Paul uses in his letter to the Romans (1:26-27). Reading the passage in context (What a radical concept, eh? I have to wonder if spiritual leaders who quote this have ever taken a single post-secondary literature class!) Paul is criticizing the Roman people for general unfaithfulness. Paul implies (vv.19-23) that monotheism was offered to or known by the Romans but they rejected it. He refers to homosexuality as an analogy to this theological sin (it's not his main topic here). Furthermore, Paul isn't even talking about people who are homosexual. Rather, he's talking about acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons. The point of the whole chapter is that these people had rejected their true calling, their nature. They didn't lack proper inclinations but chose to ignore the ones they had: "they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God (v.28)." (Boswell, 108-109)

(Sidebar: It's curious to me how mainstream Christians will gloss over what Paul says about slavery and the place of women in the ministry (because it doesn't match with their personal opinions) but will readily trot Paul's words about homosexuality at the drop of a hat. Could this be because it does align with their own personal bias? I'm just sayin'!)

Another definition of nature is that "creative and controlling force in the universe" we think of when we use the capital "N" or personify it as "Mother Nature." In the past/present, the Church taught that sex was naturally for only procreational purposes (within marriage). Homosexual couples, sexually active infertile/unmarried couples and even those who masturbate would fall outside of this teaching. However, "Marriage in the New Testament was not 'nature's' way of peopling the world, but man's way of avoiding fornication by compromising with the awesome forces of uncontrolled sexual desire (Boswell,148)." Actually in the New Testament, celibacy was highly praised as being most like Christ and more able to serve Him. However celibacy would be considered by most to be "unnatural" by definition. My question here is how can "unnatural" celibacy be seen as moral but "unnatural" homosexuality be called immoral? And why the stronger negative reaction to homosexual couples than sexually active infertile or unmarried couples?

Church theologians have also tried to say that homosexuality acts are immoral because they have abandoned the "natural use" of their body parts (Boswell, 109). This argument falls apart quickly for me. Although most hands aren't "naturally" supposed to be used to draw a face or make music, when they do, we say they are "naturally gifted." And while most hands might not "naturally" be right-handed, we wouldn't consider them "unnatural" if they happened to be left-handed.

In 1120 AD the Church Council of Nablus wrote the first law where homosexuality was labelled a “Crime against Nature.” In the Renaissance, such texts found their way into the laws of many countries, leading to widespread oppression of homosexuals on the basis that it is "unnatural." However, one should point to documentation of frequently occuring homosexual behavior in nature. There is an ever-growing extensive list of animals that naturally display homosexual behaviour. For example, in early February 2004 the New York Times reported a male pair of Chinstrap penguins in the Central Park Zoo in New York City were partnered, and when given an egg which needed incubation, successfully hatched it. One can try to explain this case away by blaming it on the NYC environment but researchers at Rikkyo University in Tokyo found twenty such pairs at sixteen major aquariums and zoos in Japan. And in Germany a zoo attempted to break up the male couples by importing female penguins from Sweden and separating the male couples and were unsuccessful. The zoo director stated the relationships were too strong between the older couples (source).

Having said that, just because homosexuality exists in nature doesn't make necessarily it moral. Promiscuity, bigamy, murder, theft and incest all exist in nature and, although natural, most of us would say these would be considered immoral. I would also argue that all the seven deadly sins are natural but considered immoral by many. In addition, I would also assert that bigotry in all of its various forms is both unnatural and unethical.

In closing, the morality of homosexuality simply can not be argued from the point of nature by any definition. I like how Saint Thomas Aquinas compared the nature of homosexuality to hot water. One would say that although water is not naturally hot, it is quite natural for water to be hot under certain circumstances. By the same token, while it might not be "natural" for humans in general to be homosexual, it is quite "natural" for a few to be homosexual (Boswell, p326). While this topic may get me into "hot water," I hope that at least it can get some of us thinking! As always I invite and welcome all divergent thoughts in the comment section!


Threnody said...

We should talk books next time we do coffee. I need something new to read and wouldn't mind some suggestions. I can offer a few myself as well.

Jay said...

The whole concept of what is nature or not is increasingly popular in academic circles. It is ironic that the disgust toward homosexuality is connected with the rise of science since starting in the 1500s on, scientific ideas became the basis for what was "true" and reaffirmed why homosexuality was wrong--not because it was against the gods, but because it was not the way the "natural order" was. Atheistic cultures, like those of the Marxist world, tend to use those arguments against homosexuality. Intriguing that the issue with penguins is that it isn't about sex, but about partnership. In some ways, that may be the greater fear--after all, boys will be boys and many cultures, like ancient Rome or some of the Maya, would accept sexual acts as long as they were done privately, but partnering with each other challenges social structures. Sorry for the ramble.

Reid Dalgleish said...

I don't think so. Any definition of what is 'natural' or 'not natural' stems from some religious definition at some time or other. Science in and of itself does not distinguish between what is natural or not, it is researcher who creates these definitions based on his or her worldview and moral compass (morality--there's another one).

That religious leaders decided one day to make one thing or another 'natural' or not, 'sinful' or not, 'acceptable' or not doesn't give any credence to the reality of it. Religious translations today (other than pure fundamentalists) will choose to follow the religious texts on some things but not others out of personal opinions or what is acceptable as a social more for the time in which the interpretation takes place. Yes, it's hypocritical, but what of religion isn't?