Let us abandon for a moment the idea of culture war, and shift the image over to a game or a sport. Many conservative believers think we are in a straightforward contest of strength, something like sumo wrestling, when we are actually in a chess game with a master who is consistently five moves ahead of us.
I bring this up because of this piece by Michael Hannon over at First Things, warning us off the false ideal of heterosexuality. And if you read that, I would then recommend this response over at Mere Orthodoxy. In this response of mine, I would want to go even farther than Matt Anderson did in registering concern. By “registering concern” I refer of course to the fact that I will be dancing in place, with my hair on fire, and waving my hands over the top of my head.
There are three problems that have each contributed to setting my head ablaze. Let me outline them for you, although concentration might be a problem.
The first problem with this essay is that it represents the triumph of nominalism run amok. Now I have a great deal of sympathy for a particular approach that Christian writers have taken in encouraging Christians struggling with same sex attraction. They do well in teaching these Christians that their identity should not be found in their temptations, but rather in Christ. Whatever our temptations are, of whatever kind, if we have trusted in Christ, we should not be defined by them. We are, all of us, commanded to turn to the form of new humanity in Jesus, and He is the one who sets our foundational identity.
But more than that is going on here. In many cases, the reluctance to give approval to statements like “I am heterosexual” or “I am homosexual” is actually a reluctance to approve of any abstractions whatever. Everything has to be this table or that one, and we must take care not to veer off into a refried Platonism by seeking to define what a table is in the abstract. But this is overly precious, incoherent, and impossible, all three of which failings are good reasons not to do it. If ever you find yourself teetering on the brink of queer theory in order to avoid Platonism, then you should conclude that Jesus must want you to become a Platonist. I am overstating this, of course, but not by much.
Scripture does not hesitate to use nouns to describe individuals who are classed in that group because of things they do. Presumably they do them because of an inclination to do them, and the apostle Paul does not worry about creating false identities outside of Christ through a simple use of collective nouns.
“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind . . .” (1 Cor. 6:9).
Paul doesn’t worry about it because He knows the power of Christ to change the categories — “such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:11). But in the meantime, this guy is a fornicator, that guy is an adulterer, and the other guy is a catamite.
So instead of puzzling over what to do about the chess move confronting us right now, we should first reflect on what happened to us five moves back. One of the things that happened was that we lost a particular philosophical battle, and so lost our ability to use collective nouns in making moral judgments. In order to be faithful now, we need to go back and recover that ability. I am heterosexual is a meaningful statement, and as long as I am making it within the boundaries of biblical orthodoxy, I should continue to make it.
The second is the retreat to commitment, where the ever-present refuge of “our faith community” beckons us if the public battle ever gets too hot for us. In his book of that name, William Bartley dissects the pretensions of the liberal mainliners a generation ago, showing how their intellectual “courage” was nothing less than a simple CYA move. Our intellectual evangelicals today remind me of Tallyrand’s observation about the Bourbons — “they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” We are in the process of committing the same kind of intellectual suicide, and for all the same reasons, and with the same rationalizations. Hannon mentions that we believers should be fine with Foucault as a strange bedfellow, which I take as a strange suggestion. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God into the image of a corruptible queer theorist, one who incidentally had already been corrupted. He shouldn’t have been allowed in the house, much less the bedroom.
And the third problematic area is the growing distrust of nature and the natural order. This is actually what lies behind my insistence on the new birth. In order to be given a new nature, I must have an old nature to be delivered from. But that old nature is a fallen nature, not an anti-nature.
If we say, on philosophical grounds, that a person has no quintessential nature that can be transformed in the new birth, this has ramifications for the doctrine of regeneration. But it also has just as many ramifications for our ability to object to sex change operations, and for the same reasons. If a man asks a surgeon to change him from a boy to a girl, what is being violated? There is no express scriptural prohibition of it. It offends middle class sensibilities, but I have been reading First Things long enough to have rejected the idol of middle class sensibilities. The apostle Paul would say that such a move was “against nature,” but Foucault, this strange fellow here in bed with us now, is whispering retorts at a furious pace. Nature? Nature?!
Yes, nature. God made the world in a particular way, and has provided us with a manual for understanding in the Bible. But I have assembled enough products that were shipped to me in a box to be able to tell how the good ones work. Say I am assembling a book case. Not only do I have the manual, but I also discover that the intelligent people at the factory have labeled and marked the various parts. That is what nature is like. The world goes together the way God intends for it to go together.
If you want to make sense of it all, then make this resolution. Reject every form untethered nominalism. Confess that Jesus is Lord outside your faith community. And embrace the grace contained within natural revelation. And don’t try to run any workshops on queer theory at Tea Party rallies.
Now there are good Christian people who, for various reasons, are dabbling with one or more of these three problem areas — unhinged nominalism, a retreat to commitment, and a suspicion of natural theology. I do not regard them as evil or wicked, but I do regard them as hopelessly outmaneuvered.