Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Problem of Homosexuality in the light of the Holy Trinity

The purpose of this introductory essay post is to draw together some reflections on the nature of homosexuality and its relation to the Christian faith that have become increasingly pertinent to my own development as a Christian.  Firstly, my best friend is a gay Christian man, with many of the difficulties that arise with one in his position.  Chiefly among these is knowing how to cope with sexual temptation when it chances upon him.  Not that there is anything especially surprising about a man (single or otherwise) who struggles with sexual temptation in one form or another, rather for my friend, his sexual temptations have the aura of the doubly forbidden.  That is, the single heterosexual Christian man can live in the hope that one day his libidinal energy can be challenged into a loving relationship, and that temptation, if not exorcised, can at least become consecrated in God’s eyes, in society’s eyes, and - importantly - his own.  The temptation suffered by the single heterosexual Christian man is not, in this instance, inherently bad.  Not so the sexual temptations of the single homosexual Christian man (or woman). 
Secondly, I spent the best part of a morning recently reading excellent extracts of the theologian William Stringfellow on a popular theological blog.[1]  Towards the end of my reading I discovered that Stringfellow lived on Rhode island with his gay partner, Anthony Towne.[2]  How could man with such a profound and lively understanding of the gospel possibly allow himself so much slack, I thought.  The man knew and lived the gospel that he loved in a single day more than I have my whole life! 
Thirdly, my growing respect for the current Archbishop of Canturbury, Dr Rowan Williams.  I also recently read his article Forbidden Fruit, which appeared in Martyn Percy’s 1997 book Sex and Sexuality in Perspective.  The article raised a number of issues, chief of which was the very non-modern understanding of “sexuality” that is presented to us in the New Testament; and by non-modern what is meant is the way in which sexuality is not addressed or questioned by the New Testament writers with anything like the same set of assumptions which a modern reader would inevitably bring.  Also, Dr Williams stressed the importance of relationships being themselves modelled on that which God Himself manifests within Himself in the Trinity.  That being so, then, the injunction against homosexuality suddenly started to seem at best irrational.  If a committed homosexual relationship (like that of Stringfellow and Towne) could manifest the loving relationality which binds the Triune God together, then surely any disparagement of such a relationship very much fails a Christian analysis?  Also, Dr Williams highlighted for me the very great potential for “normal” heterosexual relationships to allow ecclesiastical and societal approval to cloak domination, coercion and manipulation with a veneer of Christian respectability.[3]
In terms of how I intend to approach this subject then, I would like to proceed in a manner that firstly is not obsessed with sex, or what people do with their bodies.  My focus throughout will hopefully be seen to be centred on a critique of human relationships per se in the light of the Trinity.  In this I am taking my cue from Dr Williams own analysis, and indeed, it strikes me as one with a great deal of theological mileage.  That is, if God is love because in his perichoretic union of Father, Son and Spirit He ex-ists in communal, loving relationship, then the whole notion of loving relationship can legitimately be thought of purely in terms of God’s own inner self-relationality.  This is especially so since as human beings we are made in the image of God, and many theologians have argued that inherent to this imaging is the capacity and desire for relationship.  Thus it is only through the Trinity that a true and perfect critique of human relationships is possible.[4]
Second to this, I would like to avoid falling into irrationalism or latent homophobia, but instead, recognise the complicity in which heterosexual love is itself constitutionally bound to reproducing non-Trinitarian modes of relating when it is itself not anchored in the being of God’s own mode.  That homophobia frequently hides under the cover of what passes for biblical fidelity is a scandal that must be addressed by serious disciples of Christ, though I hope to demonstrate why irrationalism has become a possible discursive manoeuvre in the light of the tremendous strides gay-rights have achieved these last few decades.
Finally, with Trinitarian modes of loving relating as a guide, I will argue that human sexuality in all its forms is fundamentally flawed insofar as it fails replicate Trinitarian relationality.  No one - least of all heterosexuals - is guiltless in this regard.
My reason for approaching the subject from a Trinitarian perspective is that, just as the Bible never stoops to argue in favour of the existence of God, so it does not argue against homosexuality.  The reality of God lies in the biblical text below the level of an assumption - it grounds the text, sheltering, as Heidegger might put it, a Trinitarian reality.  Theologically minded philosophers (Descartes, Kant) have attempted to ground the existence and belief in God in systems of thought in which God appears not as Trinity but as some sort of supreme being, a sterile idol of human manufacture.  In contrast, the God of the Bible is one who is discovered in revelational narratives of a personal nature.  The God of the philosophers dies (as Nietzsche proclaimed), whereas the Christian God of the Bible is so over-flowing with life that even death cannot beat him.  Equally, then, a biblically grounded critique of human sexuality which is not itself based in the Trinity will fall short and fall into the same traps philosophical “proofs” of God fell into.  My aim is not therefore to prove homosexuality to be immoral, but just to hold all sexuality up to the light of Trinitarian relating.

Homo-/Heterosexuality: what’s the problem?
Before I continue, then, it would be good to present a working definition of the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This extract I quote from theologian, writer, pastor and blogger Dr Leithart:
Out of love, He eternally begets His Eternal Son as an “expression of the [His] ecstatic love” (Mark McIntosh, and the following paragraphs), and that same love produces “the eternal filial response of the Son towards the Father.” The Father is Father because of “his eternal desire to pour out the divine life for the Other-in-God (the Son),” and the Son is Son insofar as He “desires eternally to speak forth the Father’s giving life.” Son and Father both say, with equal totality and intensity, “I am my beloved’s, and He is mine.” Father and Son are each beside themselves with love. Such is the ecstasy of God.
This God, this ecstatic Trinity, chooses to be more ecstatic still. The Father stands outside Himself in the Son, and the Son in the Father, but together they stand outside themselves in creating and sustaining a world that is other than both. The Father eternally speaks His Word, but He chooses to speak His Word not only as Word but as world. For His part, the Son desires His love for the Father to resound not only in the enclosure of perfect divine communion but “from within all creatures.” Father and Son make a world they don’t need, in order to take up this world into their mutual love. The world becomes part of the “love language” of Father and Son (David Field). Creation too is an expression of God’s ecstasy.
But this God, this ecstatic Trinity, chooses to be more ecstatic still. The world doesn’t cease to be the mutual love-gift of Father and Son simply because sin and death enter: In defiance of sin and death, the Father is determined to express His love in the creation, and the Son is still determined that creation will respond to His Father in obedience, faith, and love. In the perfect obedience of the Son, the Son’s love for the Father resounds more richly than ever, for in the incarnate Son “the Word speaks even in the final silence of the cross.” In the incarnation, the Father sends the Son to stand outside God as man, and in His life, death, and resurrection, the incarnate Son renews creation, so that creation can stand outside itself, in God.
All this is done through the Spirit, who is the Love, the very ecstasy of God. “Beguiled” by the Spirit, the Father eternally begets an eternal Word and in the Spirit the eternal Word vocalizes eternal praise. The Spirit is the living breath who energizes the Word by which the Father creates the world, and the Spirit gives life to the creatures through whose praise the Word sings to His beloved Father. In the fullness of time, the Spirit drove the Son into the wilderness of the world, drove Him to the cross, rescued Him from the grave, and now is the Love that is the presence of Jesus, the breath by which we live. Through His Spirit, the incarnate Son stands outside Himself, orchestrating creation, tuning it to praise the Father.[5]

The love between the Father, Son and Spirit can be described as being one of over-flowing super-abundant love, without a hint of the usual techniques of manipulation, control and domination that characterises even the most loving gay or straight human relationships.  While this description far from exhausts what can be said of the inner workings of the divine life, one can at least acknowledge that this description is characteristically Trinitarian.
The problem of homo/heterosexual desire, I would argue, is not to see it as being along the lines of homosexuality equals inherently sinful and heterosexuality equals flawed, but fundamentally godly.  Thinking this way is to indulge in a flawed dichotomy of sin and righteousness with regard to a gospel dictated understanding of humanity.  It is manifestly obvious, and really goes without saying, that many heterosexual relationships fall far short of anything like a godly righteousness in its inner workings, just as many a homosexual relationship is quite capable of displaying Christ-like love in abundance.  The position, homosexuality bad, heterosexuality good is a false position for the Christian.  Rather, the problem is that every worldly configuration of sexual desire is inherently sinful (hetero- and homo-) if and when it does not adhere to a Trinitarian model of love and relatedness.  That is, regardless of how sexual desire is configured,[6] the degree to which it falls short of Trinitarian love and community it is non/anti-relational (i.e. sinful).  In fact, heterosexual desire, as already mentioned, takes on an increasingly sinister sheen due to its wider social and ecclesiastical acceptance; the very acceptability and respectability of heterosexual desire in and out of the churches acts as a veil to hide, indulge, enforce, and impose all manner of sinful relating.  In wrapping itself so snugly (not to mention smugly) in discursive religiosity heterosexual desire perpetuates (or reproduces) the effects of the Fall and the subsequent curse of God on humanity, e.g.: ‘To the woman He said…Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’[7]  It would take a lot to unpack even these few words, but the implication is that the man’s domination of his wife and her striving over him is an accursed consequence of a human sin.[8]  It could even be read not so much prescriptively as descriptively, that is, God is not pronouncing what ought to be as a punishment, but rather what is to be because of sin.  Unfortunately, the historical reading of the verse prescriptively has inoculated very many sincere Christians against holding patriarchy up to a much-needed Trinitarian critique.  I would like to add that there are aspects of homosexuality which can be read as the pathologisation of this sin-created bad relating of the sexes.  That is, with the intensification of the anti-relational results of sin to an almost diseased degree through the total breakdown of other-centred desire. 

Why Not Homo-/Heterosexual Desire?
With that clearing of the decks of desire in mind, is it the case then that both homo- and heterosexual desire should be done away with and condemned?  In a sense, yes.  Any relating that is not modelled on or in-dwelt by the Trinity is [going to be] inherently sinful.  But this, of course, sounds overly idealistic.  Should all relations be modelled on this perfect relationality?  What of the relation between judge and criminal; are nations to be exempt from this relational configuration - and if not, why not; and if yes, how so?
These are not questions which I am here concerned to answer, just to bring up as possible avenues for future discussion.  The question of sexual desire and the legitimacy with which it can be enacted is what I am now concerned with.  The assumption (or rather, the assumptions I use in daily life) is that it is possible for a man and a woman to relate sexually in a Trinitarian manner, taking the form of a lifelong, socially recognised commitment (i.e. marriage), but that in a man-man, or woman-woman, relationship it is inherently impossible to accurately mirror Trinitarian relating and remain sexual.  This is assumed even though every man-woman relationship inevitably falls short of Trinitarian relating; in spite of this, it is still closer to the inner life of God than a homosexual configuration of desire.  But, why?
There seems to be at least two axis on which this issue spins: one is the nature of the Trinity itself (or Himself), and that nature as being mirrored however imperfectly in man-woman marriage; the other is sex.  And of course it is sex on which this whole issue seems most insistently to spin, because a close man-man relationship that remains for whatever reason non-sexual (as in friendship or whatever) poses no problem.[9] 
It is my contention, though, that this axis privileges sex over-highly; that the issue is not really one of sex itself (the act/s), but rather the potential sex enacts and represents for human fruitfulness.  Perhaps this is the key.  God’s community of love, as expressed by Leithart above, is an over-abundance of love that results in the begetting of the Son (though “results” is probably not the right word for Him who is eternally begotten), in the procession of the Spirit from the love of the Father and the Son, and in the creation of the universe.  God’s perichoretic love is, then, an essentially fruitful love, and this fruitfulness is both cause and consequence of His love - something that cannot be removed or seen as an additional extra or appendage.  But why should sex be understood critically in the light of the Trinity, a reality it can hardly hope to aspire towards?  After all, I have already suggested that all relating should fall under the critique of a Trinitarian criticism, yet not all relationships can be fruitful in the same way: what of friendships, of family relationships, etc, why is sex specially privileged to be fruitful?  Looked at negatively, I would argue that to reveal sex as fruitless (i.e. as sterile non-re-productivity) is to remove the essence of sexual relating, a feature it most closely shares with the Trinity.  To do this is to engage in a dialectical movement in which sex literally becomes its own other.  It is to centre the sexual relationship on a sterile, dyadic, non-Trinitarian model: the act of sex, not over-abundance, becomes the centre.     
In the light of this reflection I can begin to see more clearly the Roman Catholic attitude towards contraception, in that it blocks the fruitfulness on which love - in order to be love seen from a Trinitarian perspective - is constitutionally founded.  The modern divorce of sex from reproduction allows for the emergence of a “love” that is independent from loving-fruitfulness: in this sex is able to float free from reproductive consequences, allowing it to take the form of an ideological centre. 
The emergence of sex in this sense allows or legitimises non-fruitful hetero-/homosexual relationships, because such relationships are no longer viewed as founded on a love that is constitutionally fruitful.  By disallowing love’s fruitfulness in the form of offspring the underlying bulwark against normalised serial heterosexual monogamy and homosexual relationships is removed.  Ironically, then, the rise of queer culture and the normalisation of homosexuality (along with promiscuous heterosexuality) is something that can be traced back to heterosexual selfishness with regard to children.  I realise that this makes a rather sweeping generalisation, and ignores massive social and cultural changes that would have occurred more or less without the invention of the Pill.  My point though is that contraceptives allowed for a form of consciousness in which sex was no longer contextualised within reproductive fruitfulness to arise, and that once that had taken shape it was possible to view sexual relationships from outside one in which children could and should be raised.  Indeed, arguments against homosexuality come to seem irrational as a direct result of love and sex no longer fulfilling themselves in Trinitarian fruitfulness; that is, if fruitful over-abundance is no longer the essence of human/divine relating, then sex between any consenting adults in virtually any setting loses its prohibitive undergirding. 
Without knowing why, therefore, the Christian who stands opposed to homosexuality in general is left with recourse to the irrational in his or her moral fight; to what looks and is to all intents and purposes homophobic prejudice trumped up as biblical fidelity, or - worse, in my view - to the position that wrongly imagines heterosexuality as the de facto correct form of human sexual relating, and thus legitimising swathes of unrighteous and hidden oppressive practices in the name of God, of “nature”, and biblical fidelity.
The issue of sex inevitably deepens the discussion, because although seen in this Trinitarian light, loving sexual relating is meant to result in fruitful abundance, that is not equal to saying that all sexual relating ought to.  Fundamental to the argument that I have put forward though is the idea that sexual relating, if it is to remain within the loving boundaries of Trinitarian relating, should not foreclose, disavow or deny the possibility of fruitfulness from the outset.  I am definitely not arguing for the position that sex always ought to be about reproduction, but rather that reproduction (or fruitfulness, which I use because it is a word that more accurately models Trinitarian relating) ought to be a possibility within sexual relating.[10]  And it is for this reason (and this reason alone, as far as I can see) that homosexual relating is more sharply divergent from Trinitarian relating than heterosexual, because the homosexual relationship is from the outset a closed-circle of relating, a dyadic refusal of otherness.[11]  A Trinitarian theology of over-abundant fruitfulness is, in my view, the only sufficiently resistant argument against the legitimising and normalisation of homosexual relating because it strikes to the root of the ideology of sex in the contemporary world.  In this sense it would be useful to take heed of Marx’s dictum that modes of production determine consciousness[12] - but equally true is the dictum that modes of (non)re-production determine consciousness by allowing sex to reveal itself as separated from the loving fruitfulness that is its emotional and physical destiny.      

[1] Doerge, Halden, Inhabitatiodei, []
[2] Schneider, N. The Biblical Circus of William Stringfellow, in, []
[3] I would stress though that Dr Williams did acknowledge that despite all this it would be very hard to read the scriptural texts as actively approving of homosexual relationships of any kind.
[4] Not that this is by any means a perfect critique, I hasten to add.
[5] Leithart, Dr.,Trinity: Wedding Sermon,, []
[6] I prefer the term configured rather than orientated when speaking of sexual desire because it connotes a greater degree of multiplicitous over-determination in the origin and aims of libidinal desire.  Orientation connotes a much more fixed sexual agenda than can reasonably be supposed.
[7] Genesis 3: 16, NIV
[8] I once heard, but I can’t recall where, the theologian Don Carson comment on the word which we translate as ‘desire’ in the verse just quoted: the Hebrew word for desire connotes a manipulative striving for mastery, a cajoling coercive-ness.
[9] Or at least no problem relating to this issue.
[10] Also, I would not like to suggest that contraceptives are themselves inherently bad and/or a bar to Trinitarian relating, for example, in a couple for whom yet another pregnancy would be economically crippling.  Though, in this instance, contraceptives can only be seen as the lesser of two evils, not as a good in itself.  Also, I would like to add that another exception would be in the relationships of post-fertile couples.
[11] Though this does not put heterosexual relating on a higher moral plane.
[12] Marx, K., A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,, []. See: ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.’


  1. Hi David,

    I've tried commenting a couple of times (I think blogspot has a vendetta against wordpress bloggers, I always find it difficult commenting on blogspot blogs!) Here's my third attempt to post a comment!

    I'll be brief this time...

    Like the post a lot. I wonder if in addition to the "fruitfulness" point, there's also a point to be made about the concrete particularity of the Persons. God doesn't pour life and love into His Twin, but His Son. It's not Head-Head but Head-Body. And in *this* way it's a fruitful union (because complementary).

    So created relationships of mutual indwelling ought to be covenantal and complementary (and in this way will be creative - I'm a preacher I have to alliterate!) In this way you don't have to buy into the RC view of contraception.

    Do you think?


  2. Hi Glen,
    Thanks for the thumbs up on your blog! Have jotted some thoughts down about what you suggested.

    I'm not sure that I understand why a Head-Body complimentarian relationship is a fruitful or creative union of itself. I definitely think that you're right to highlight the fact that the trinitarian persons are not the same as each other, because to miss out that would be to go awry in another direction, however faithful to the idea of fruitfulness I try and be. I'm sure as well that it's not a case of choosing either complimentarianism or fruitfulness as the main model of human sexual relating, since in the Trinity the one suggests the other, I think. My concern though would be in how a stress on complimentariansim might be interpreted as possibly supporting a re-admittance of legitimate homosexual relating. That is, granted that the Father and the Son do not have ontologically identical relationships with one another, the suggestion might be that this could translate into the acceptability in human terms of consensual and (because of the different social standings and ages of the partners) complimentarian pederasty. I know it sounds far-fetched, but this for me clinches the argument for pushing the trinitarian basis of fruitfulness over the nuts and bolts of who is relating to whom and how from within the Godhead. If complimentarianism in the Trinity or in human relations were to become the reason why homosexuality is sinful relating then I would have to ask what was uniquely special about it, since complimentary relationships can manifest in a huge variety of ways, not just in terms of gender. So, in my view, the reason why the relations between the masculine Father and the masculine Son do not support homosexual relations is because their relationship is fruitful in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and not necessarily because they compliment each other as different persons. I agree that one of the reasons why their love is eternally fruitful in the form of the Holy Spirit is because the Son is not the Father and visa versa, but Likewise, the reason why man-woman relationships mirror this is not because of the relatively different and complimentary statuses that men and women share, but because the love they share is not dyadic, but inherently fruitful.

    It becomes almost circular: the basis of male-female/Father-Son fruitfulness is complimentarity within difference; without complimentarity, no fruitfulness. Pederasty is complimentary, but fruitless both potentially and actually. (My relationship with my wife is, for example, also complimentary but fruitless; just that it is potentially fruitful, if not actually).
    Sorry, I feel like I've written another essay! I do think you've got a point, but I'm not sure there is a way round the RC position via complimentarity, since what makes complimentarity worthwhile is whether or not it is (potentially or actually) fruitful.

  3. The fruitfulness is a great thought and all very well but I'm with Glen here and can't see how it can stand without the complementarian aspect. Based purely on a 'fruitfulness' motif, surely adoption then becomes a legitimate way for gay couples to be fruitful?

    As for the complementarian motif, I think there is a very strong case for understanding Genesis 1 to be promoting a specifically male-female complementarian understanding of the image of God, thus putting it front and centre in terms of this discussion.

  4. Hi Achilles,

    Thanks for posting. I know what you mean, but I'm not suggesting a version of fruitfulness independent of a complimentarian model of the Trinity - I just hadn't thought of it when I originally wrote my piece. After Glen's comments I don't think fruitfulness can stand on it's own, since without the complimentarian model you simply can't have fruitfulness. It's not strictly one or the other, but both; I do stand by the idea that while fruitfulness without complimentarity is impossible, complimentarity without fruitfulness (or the potential for fruitfulness) is meaningless.

    I would also say that the problem you mention regarding gay adoption is a logical consequence of sex being separated from reproductive fruitfulness rather than fruitfulness being elevated over complementarity as the meaning of sex. If sex no longer has the potential for reproduction (within a gay relationship) then fruitfulness is not an issue, sex becomes a mere momentary act with no more meaning beyond itself than opening a tin of beans. Adopting a child in this circumstance has nothing whatsoever to do with any spurious fruitfulness. The relationship may in fact even be complimentarian of sorts (passive/active sexual partners, etc), but because it is non-fruitful the complimentarian aspect has no meaning. My point is that complimentarianism is only a special category of relating because of the potential it gives for being fruitful, and thus mirroring Trinitarian complimentarian fruitfulness; likewise, fruitfulness does not at all float free from the complimentarian ground that makes it possible.

  5. Ok, I think I'm more comfortable now with your clarification on the mutual necessity of fruitfulness and complementarity. (Not that you especially need my approval!) ;-) Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  6. This writer is trying to fit homosexual behavior into the words of the Holy bible. Clearly the behavior "homosexual acts" are described as an abomination to the Lord. So are we to conclude by this author that God has changed his mind? I think not. It is the behavior that is sinful not the person.