Monday, January 14, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Homosexual: PART ZERO (Why This Approach?)

Part Zero? The anticipation must be killing you. No, I decided, as I work on the other sections, to provide a little preface here. I want to explain why I'm going about tackling this issue this way; that is, with a focus on philosophy and a skepticism toward religious doctrine and theology. I think it's an important question to answer before I jump in. Furthermore, I want to limit a number of criticisms up front.

I think a major problem with the religious world today is the lack of rigorous philosophical thought. Now, I don't mean that religious people don't think about and debate philosophy. Obviously they do. What I am mostly criticizing is how philosophy is presented to the religious. This may be the fault of Protestantism, or it really may be the fault of modern philosophical thought, or it really may just be a sign of the times, but I have yet to discuss homosexuality or pretty much any other major moral issue without hearing "what does the Bible say about it?"

This is annoying for a number of reasons. One, most people, religious or otherwise, don't really know anything about the Bible. (I got an entire graduate degree on the topic, and I don't really feel like that's particularly sufficient.) Two, you're only going to convince non-religious people of one thing when you cite the bible: you're not worth talking to. Three, even if people were master biblical scholars, they would see that the Bible doesn't really say that much about moral theory (at least in a way that would allow a person to apply that moral theory convincingly and consistently). And most importantly, four, by citing the Bible, the person arguing for the position advocated in the Bible (the immorality of homosexuality, say) has given up way too much to begin with. That is, they are already basically saying, "Well, we can't really know about right and wrong unless we first consult our divine revelation!"

This Bible-citing method has two pretty significant consequences. One (see, I love lists), if the person really is just dead-set on keeping the Bible as the ultimate source of moral knowledge, he will emphasize certain aspects of the Bible so that he can better fit in the modern world. See, for example, the ridiculous emphasis on "equality" and (what-is-claimed-to-be) "love." This is all over the place. It's so all over the place that even secular people do it, completely oblivious to the fact that their moral principles come from some weird perversion of biblical morality. As a result, you get churches (or "Catholic politicians") supporting gay marriage because they support "love" because the Bible says that we should love our neighbors. It's a complete mess, and it's often based completely on a particular group's interpretation of some biblical principle. Two, in the alternative, if the person isn't dead-set on keeping the Bible around, he will completely drop the religion because that person thinks that morality can only be derived from divine revelation, and that particular group's divine revelation, they feel (which is a feeling usually completely influenced by modern social norms) is "bad." (The secular world probably begs the question about goodness and badness more than the religious (at least the religious can cite something), but that's not the focus here).

In both cases we are left with the complete catastrophe that is modern morality among the religious. People do things all the time without any idea whether they are good or bad, and if anyone presses them on it, they say either "the Bible doesn't say anything about this!" or "what, you're going to cite the Bible, a book that advocates genocide and slavery!" Elizabeth Anscombe made a similar argument (taking probably a bigger approach as to how this standard applies to the secular world) in her Modern Moral Philosophy. And that was written like over 50 years ago. It's only gotten so much worse now.

And Catholics really aren't much better. They sit on this magnificent collection of incredible philosophy, but they end up sounding like Protestants most of the time, citing the Bible or some dogma they hardly understand. They, though, add people like the Pope to their list of citable sources. I cannot tell you how many times talking with a Catholic about contraception or homosexuality or whatever where the person spends the majority of the time citing things like Theology of the Body to prove the point. Now, I have nothing against Theology of the Body, and I'm sure it's a great work. It's just, you can't cite religious texts or religious works when you're trying to appeal either to a person who has no interest in those works or who is really trying to develop a strong sense of moral truth. They generally just beg the question or assume the reader is already on board with the underlying premise. When, in most cases, they aren't

You see, people act on reasons. This is the nature of the human will. A human will act or not act based on some principle or idea. For the religious, this often means doing or not doing something based on what one, the Bible (or whatever other religious text) says, or two, what authority says. These are reasons for doing, surely, and they make sense. They are just insufficient to really answer deep moral questions. They are safe starting points, but they are not everything. For example, it is reasonable and good to listen to a valid authority. This is how humans survive and do well as a species. But it is bad to listen to that authority if that authority is corrupt or commanding things contrary to what is good. And we're concerned with the good when we're talking about morality. In other words, the good precedes the command from the authority. This is not to say that authority is necessarily bad. It's merely a question of goodness itself that we should be evaluating. Similarly, this is not an argument that says one shouldn't consult something like the Bible when making moral evaluations.

All this is to say is that people need real concrete, developed reasons for acting or not acting. When they do not have them, they become lost and do awful, misguided things. Similarly, a man who is addicted to pornography (or whatever) is not going to be able to really kick the habit when he doesn't have a real sense, besides a hunch, of why what he's doing is wrong. Or, at least, it's going to be an incredible uphill battle of the will. What real apologetics should do is try to answer these difficult moral questions, not by citing the Bible or the authority of the Pope, but by developing compelling arguments that really get down to what's at issue. Again, this is not to say that the Bible or the Pope or whatever are wrong. It's merely to say that when the Bible or the Pope speaks truly, they are speaking truly with reference to true truth. They are not creating the truth when they speak; they are simply identifying something that is actually true. In other words, homosexuality activity is not wrong because the Bible says so. Homosexual activity is wrong because homosexual activity is actually wrong, and the Bible just accurately identifies that truth. Put simply, even before the verses often cited by Christians to prove that homosexuality activity is wrong were written, homosexual activity was still wrong. Even if the Bible were never written, homosexuality would still be wrong.

It is questions like these that should be answered before any of the other stuff even begins. (The same goes for the existence of God, incidentally, but that is far outside the scope of this blog.) Thomas did an excellent job of answering a lot of these questions, and so did a lot of other great philosophers. But I've never once heard people mention them, at least not in any serious way. Either they think natural law doesn't matter (as I've been trying to point out here), or they just don't understand it at all and cite it sort of casually in passing. But it does matter, as I've been trying to explain, and it takes significant work to both understand it and articulate its principles. Now, I know not every person is a professional philosopher, and even I, who has spent a lot of time with this, is hesitant to even begin. But it is the duty of the Church to teach its people. In this regard, it has, in my experience, completely failed. 

Now, can everything be determined in this way, the way I am attempting to explain here? No. But principles, especially concerning basic moral truths, can be, at least generally speaking. It is to that that I turn next. Again, most of these arguments have been developed in other places; I am merely here to organize and explain them as best I can. I should have the first part up today or tomorrow, but no promises of course!


  1. Another good post, friend.

    The Church has indeed failed to properly catechize the laity in matters of morality and worship, and we are living the results. Lapsed Catholics make up one of the largest "denominations" in the U.S. I have too many friends who have left Rome for Eastern Orthodoxy or one of the Protestant faiths because we are disconnected from our roots.

  2. Fantastic blog, Joe K. I will be watching it regularly.

    Sometime, if you have the inclination, I'd like to see you go into your views on the modern LGBT movement - what good things they do, what bad things they do - along with your estimation of how these topics are discussed 'out in the wild'. How relationships are presented in media, etc.

    1. Hey Crude,

      I was hoping you'd check out the blog. It's good to see you around. I definitely plan on taking up gay culture. I have a big list of things written down that I want to discuss, especially related to topics concerning homosexuality and culture. In a lot of ways I didn't realize how much I had on my mind about everything until I started writing it down.

      I just need to get through all the natural law-y stuff as quickly as possible since, one, it's probably the most difficult stuff, and two, I'll be referring back to it so much. I'll probably spend a lot of time on the "unitive" aspect of sexuality after I tackle most of the perverted faculty stuff, and then I might jump into virtue ethics, but I'm not sure. I'll definitely be taking on those sorts of things anyway.

      Thanks again for stopping by! I hope I don't disappoint!