Friday, October 17, 2008

End-of-Week Reflections: Christian Necrophilia, Gays as Alcoholics

As the work week ends, some theological odds and ends from dialogues this week . . . .

Yesterday, I replied to a good comment from Carl on my posting about prowling wolves and the silence of the shepherds. In that reply, I noted that, in my view, there’s a strong strand of necrophilia running through Christianity. I’d like to day more about that today.

For some time now, it has struck me that, in some essential respects, as Christianity has developed historically, it has incorporated necrophiliac tendencies at more than a subliminal level into its very core and not merely into marginal areas of doctrinal and cultural life. Though the kerygma of early Christianity stresses that the cross and resurrection are together the center of Christian faith, as Christianity has developed, the cross has often eclipsed the resurrection in the lived kerygma most Christians practice. As an illustration of this, think of how, throughout Christian history, most Christian churches have used the cross as their chief identifying symbol, and how many churches combine that symbol with a corpus of the suffering Christ in their key iconography.

In my view, the necrophilia became prominent as Christianity incorporated various aspects of Hellenic thought into its doctrinal statements and theology in its formative years. In particular, from early in Christian history, there has been a continuing fascination with the world-denying, flesh-repudiating aspects of Greek philosophy—with the belief that the soul is what is essential about human beings, and the body only a dispensable shell in which the soul resides until its final liberation by death.

It’s only a small jump from that idea to the notion that helping people towards a “good” death is a noble thing for Christians to do, that cultivating death not merely for ourselves but for others whom we "love" is a desirable project. It requires only a small stretch of the imagination to begin thinking, as influential Christian thinkers have insisted throughout history, that this world is merely a shadow of the “real” world of heaven; that life is like a night spent in a bad inn, to be endured because the bliss of heaven awaits us; that it is better to die than to live, if death means our salvation and life might lead us to damnation.

A whole superstructure of devotion has been erected around these ideas in institutional Christianity. They have resulted in a fixation of churches on saving people from eternal damnation—on saving their souls while ignoring their bodies. This superstructure of devotion focuses on the need for mechanisms to enable us to negotiate the wilds of this passing life successfully, so that we may find ourselves worthy to enter heaven: on the need for pastor or priest to help us along, to proclaim the eternal Word of salvation to us, to baptize us, to chrism us, to feed us with the Eucharist, to forgive our sins, to help us assure that we are prepared to face death.

Though Protestant Christianity began as a revolt against such mediatory beliefs, those beliefs remain strong under other guises in Protestant traditions. The belief of many Christians in the Protestant traditions that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and the only trustworthy guide to eternal salvation often absolutizes the scriptures, turns them into a fetishized mediatory object that we must venerate and submit to, if we expect to enter heaven. And the preaching of many Protestant churches is every bit as much focused on the next life, on sin and death and the cross, as is that of the traditions Protestantism repudiated in the Reformation.

The necrophiliac strand runs through all versions of “official” Christianity today, as a central and not incidental heritage. And this is exceedingly ironic, since it was not at all the central preoccupation of Jesus’s own life and ministry, which focused on the proclamation that, in his life and ministry, the reign of God was breaking into the world. Into this world . . . .

Jesus did not develop a superstructure of beliefs and practices to assure that we could escape damnation and enter heaven. He seems to have been entirely disinterested in all those rituals and cults and doctrines that Christians now cherish as indispensable for salvation.

Instead, he gave primary attention to practical compassion as the path to union with God. His focus was this-worldly. If there are qualifying tests for entry into heaven, his parables inform us, they have everything in the world to do with whether we find him in the least among us, in the man beaten by thieves and left to die by the roadside, in the tax-collector, the prostitute, the poor widow, the imprisoned one, the one with no clothes, food, or shelter, the despised and oppressed brother or sister.

Salvation, in Jesus’s preaching and ministry, has as much this-worldly force as it has next-worldly implications. It begins here and now. Death is not the goal, the friend we welcome because death liberates our immortal souls from our flesh. It is the enemy, to be combated, to be overcome. Death is to be overcome as we share our bread with the hungry; it is to be combated as we provide medical care for the ill; it is to be overcome as we educate people to live productive lives in this world. It is to be transformed in manifold ways by our activities here and now.

To the extent that the churches depart from this vision of life for a death-centered, otherwordly scheme of salvation focused on the mediatory power of priest-pastor-church, they are departing from the very center of Jesus’s life and ministry, his proclamation that, in him, the reign of God was breaking into the world. The persistent challenge of Christian theology and of Christian practice is to return to the gospels as a critical starting point for all devotion, for all Christian ways of being in the world. Death-fixated prelates who try to frighten us into submitting to their whims lest we lose our souls have little to do with the way Jesus sets before us in the gospels.

+ + + + +

And some reflections on the story of Fr. Geoffrey Farrow, about which I blogged some time back ( He’s the priest of the Fresno diocese who spoke out in a Sunday homily recently, stating that his conscience forbade him to support the initiative of the California bishops to promote legislation abolishing the right of gay couples to marry in California.

As Fr. Farrow’s courageous homily suggested, his act of conscientious objection was likely to have dire consequences, and those consequences have now been made apparent. He has been suspended from ministry by Bishop John Steinbock of Fresno ( This is a penalty that both deprives Fr. Farrow of the work he is trained to do—ministering to God’s people—and of an income, of health benefits, of housing, and of retirement funds. Suspension is no light penalty.

Following the National Catholic Reporter article about Fr. Farrow’s suspension, for which I have just provided a link, is a blog discussion of the suspension. I want to comment on one particular proposal in the thread of discussion about this story.

This is a 16 October contribution of blogger Brendan Newell. It appears that Mr. Newell is responding to a posting I made earlier in the thread in which I cite the work of world-renowned geneticist Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project. Collins’s work in the field of genetics has recently been used dishonestly by a number of “ex-gay” ministry sites. These groups use Collins’s observation that no single “gay gene” has been discovered to conclude that there is no genetic basis at all for sexual orientation.

Collins has publicly repudiated the ex-gay misrepresentation of his genetic findings. As he notes,

The evidence we have at present strongly supports the proposition that there are hereditary factors in male homosexuality — the observation that an identical twin of a male homosexual has approximately a 20% likelihood of also being gay points to this conclusion, since that is 10 times the population incidence. But the fact that the answer is not 100% also suggests that other factors besides DNA must be involved. That certainly doesn’t imply, however, that those other undefined factors are inherently alterable . . . .

No one has yet identified an actual gene that contributes to the hereditary component (the reports about a gene on the X chromosome from the 1990s have not held up), but it is likely that such genes will be found in the next few years (

Mr. Newell’s response to these genetic findings (and, it appears, to my proposal that they have to be taken into account by moral theologians doing sexual ethics), is fascinating. Newell argues, “It doesn't matter if homosexuality has it's [sic] root in genetics.”

He then goes on to compare homosexuality to alcoholism. As he maintains, alcoholism is also rooted in genetics, and yet the Catholic church calls alcoholics to sobriety and opposes legislation that would encourage alcoholics to give in to temptation.

In Mr. Newell’s view, “The exact same is true for those with a disposition towards same sex attaction [sic]. They are to be encouraged in every way to remain chaste. Any teachings to the contrary are no more signs of Christian love than giving an alcoholic a bottle of Jack Daniels.”

I’m fascinated by this seemingly plausible, but entirely misguided, theological argument. First, it does what few of those using the churches to bolster their adamantine prejudice against gay human beings today want to do: it admits that there is a genetic basis for sexual orientation, even though a single “gay gene” has not been found and may never be isolated.

But what the argument gives with one hand it quickly snatches away with the other. It takes the now-incontrovertible scientific finding that sexual orientation is linked to genetic factors, to the biological structure of the brain, etc., and twists that finding to compare being gay to being an alcoholic.

How many ways is this argument wrong? In the first place, it equates a genetic predisposition towards self-destructive behavior with a genetic predisposition to love—to love in a particular way, admittedly, and a way that Mr. Newell apparently seeks to deny as possible. But to love nonetheless.

In other words, it encourages gay human beings not to love—something that the final section of Mr. Newell’s post calls “bearing the cross” and denying oneself to follow Christ and his way of salvation.

And this is where I find the argument of the Mr. Newells of the world that gay people are fine as God has made us, but are called to lifelong denial of who God made us to be, so baffling. So unreflective. And so cruel—my second point.

Telling people not to love—to love according to their nature, according to their lights—is perhaps the most cruel thing any human being can do to another human being. Love fulfills. Love allows us to transcend ourselves, to overcome our isolation, to form bonds with others that build those whom we love and build ourselves at the same time.

Love enriches: it enriches the lover; it enriches those who are loved. It enriches communities in which it roots itself. Love builds. Love gives life, even when that life is not the new biological of a child. It gives life in manifold ways. Stable, healthy, public, publicly affirmed relationships of love—stable, healthy, public, publicly affirmed marriages between two people committing themselves to live in love—are good for the community in which these relationships live themselves out, because they enrich and build and bring life to the community in ways beyond counting.

Being gay and loving as a gay person is not akin to being an alcoholic. I have deep and sad experience with alcoholism in my own family. I know whereof I speak. My brother died tragically young in 1991 after years of self-destructive binge drinking. My parents both drank themselves to death more slowly.

I am fortunate not to have inherited that predisposition to heavy drinking. Or perhaps the truth of the matter is that I have been blessed to have been given a life partner who has so enriched and built me as a human being that I do not have any impulse to explore that genetic predisposition to addiction, if it is, indeed, lurking there in my human make-up.

The relationship of love I share with Steve: it’s an antidote to self-destruction. Without that relationship, I might well be tempted to throw my life and gifts away. I can understand the temptation, and I have nothing but compassion for those, like my brother, who succumb to it.

Why do those who now want to admit that being gay has a genetic basis still insist that being gay is like being an alcoholic? I can only assume that they do so because they cannot come to terms with the destructiveness of a prejudice to which they want to cling at all costs.

In some cases, they do so, as well, because they do not want to come to terms with their own gay inclinations, and they have found no other way to cope except to tamp down, repress, and deny—and to attack gay people who refuse to hide and be shamed. I do not know Mr. Newell. I am not suggesting that he fits into this category of folks. What I do want to note is that they are legion within the churches—self-hating gay people whose choice of a life of “self-denial” is self-destructive.

This is not a path to recommend to those who want to live healthy lives that open to love. I cannot find it in my heart and mind to believe that it is the path Jesus sets before us. That path leads always to love.

Bearing the cross, in the worldview of Jesus, has everything to do with putting up with all those forces in ourselves and the world at large that make it more difficult to love. We bear the cross because we love. It enters our life because we have set forth, in the foorsteps of Jesus, on a journey of love. Bearing the cross has nothing to do with denying love—in ourselves, or in others, when we stand against the right of others to love as God has made them.