Thursday, July 2, 2009

John Boswell on Christianity and Homosexuality: Antigay Theology as Defense of Patriarchy

From a journal entry dated Sept. 1990:

I've been reading John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1980), and want to summarize some thoughts about this ground-breaking study.

One of the most important contributions of John Boswell’s close combing of the sources re: homosexuality in the classical and early Christian world is that it casts light on why some ancient peoples condemned (or approved) homosexuality. What becomes apparent is that opponents of gay sexuality had a multiplicity of rationales and motivations. The nature argument was not foremost. We retroject that argument anachronistically into our examination of the sources, when we assume that is why homosexuality was, has been, disapproved.

Boswell shows (pp. 133-6) that in societies with no great reservoir of antigay feeling, intense erotic relationships between men (which is not necessarily to say sexual ones) were not looked at askance.

The key, it seems to me more and more: antigay theology has become a conduit for some of the worst impulses in Christianity today—patriarchy, machismo, militarism, pelvic morality as opposed to social concern. One of the tasks of theologians is to disentangle the antigay argument, to show how it is not really about sexuality so much as it is about maintaining patriarchy and the reading of the bible privileged by patriarchy. Underlying opposition to homosexuality today is actually hatred of women.

Can one not propose an empirical argument vs. the homosexuality-as-most-heinous sin idea? That is, don't homosexual people exhibit virtues, and do so conspicuously?

Maybe empirical is not the word. What I’m talking about is discernment: by their fruits shall you know them. Conventional denunciations of gays have attributed all sorts of vices to us—we’re back-stabbing, bitchy slanderers, e.g. But one finds these vices because one begins by assuming that gay people are conspicuous for having them.

No: the point is, if we gay people are engaged in behavior so transparently and outrageously morally wrong, then one would expect all our behavior to be vicious. Not so: gay people have many conspicuous virtues. As John McNeill says, all our institutions of care—hospitals, schools—would cease to function if gays boycotted them for even a single day. To say that gayness is morally wrong is counterintuitive. We know better.