Method in our Madness (3/6)

methodinmadness - 3

“Method in our Madness” is a six-week series on the United Methodist Church and human sexuality.
JUMP TO A SESSION: 1 | 2 | 3

A Little Recap

Last week, through the lens of Experience, we concluded that our influential experiences of sexuality require some pause because sometimes our filters on the world are inaccurate. Without proper caution, we could be using basic personal experience to make enormous leaps into major theological conclusions. So, we added to our ongoing sense that Christians are called to wisdom by discerning:

  1. Between the different parts of us, and the persons that we truly are in God’s sight.
  2. Between persons, and practice.
  3. Between human experience and God’s truth.

I also shared a brief personal account of my own life experience, and I encourage you to read it.

With Session Three this week we’re going to continue applying the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to human sexuality by looking through the lens of Reason. When it comes to Reason, we’re talking about rational human thought, especially in the form of science and logic. Just like the other lenses, it comes with both shortcomings and strengths.

The Weaker Side of Reason

First, we have to acknowledge right away that God is more than the human brain can comprehend. Science is our best attempt to observe the natural world, but a great deal of the realm of God is also supernatural, above or beyond nature. And faith is more than just knowledge about the Lord; in the words of James 2, “even the demons believe, and tremble” at the idea of God. But our faith is about a loving relationship that’s a matter of the heart and not just the head.

Second, I know it’s blasphemy in our culture, but science is imperfect. It can be as subjective and as biased as anything else. There are human fingerprints all over every hypothesis, every experiment, every set of variables, every group of results, and every conclusion drawn from those results. German quantum physicist, Werner Heisenberg, famously proposed that the mere act of observing something can alter the results. So, just like Experience, Reason requires a great deal of human interpretation.

One last drawback to Reason as a lens is that we too often divorce it from faith. Many of us fall into the habit of treating science and religion like they’re at odds with one another. Sure, certain wings of the Church have done their fair share to persecute pioneers of scientific thought. Certain wings of scientific academia have served as the loudest voice to reject Christian teaching. The result is that, for some of us, Reason and faith feel like oil and water.

The Strong Side

Despite these limitations, however, Reason is so powerful. First, Christians believe that both God and the Bible are understandable. Our faith makes bold supernatural claims, but the Gospel story, from beginning to end, also makes plain sense to so many of us. For me, personally, it’s the only story that makes full sense out of the highs and lows of life on earth – suffering, pain, evil, goodness, love and purpose. God has revealed Godself in a way that is accessible to the thinking mind. Methodists in particular argue for a faith that isn’t about blind allegiance or indoctrination, with no room for questions and doubt; we champion that Christians “don’t have to check our brains at the door.”

Second, science does constantly evolve, and that can be great news. Discoveries in one field can have drastic implications for seemingly-unrelated fields, as new knowledge blooms and bounces all over the place. The errors of yesterday are always subject to correction. Scientists work hard to aim for as much objectivity as possible, using methods and samples to try to minimize bias. They generally want their findings to be as reproducible as possible. And, whether their findings prove or disprove their initial inclinations, there are usually lessons to be learned and new trials to run in pursuit of clarity.

Last, Reason is important because science and faith do illuminate one another. Beyond their part-time rivalry, there is nothing but overlap between the two. The founding fathers/mothers of a surprising number of scientific disciplines were avid Christians, even priests, monks, and nuns. From astrophysics to anatomy to archaeology, faith and reason inspire questions and provide insights for one another.

Reason & LGBTQ Identity

It’s no wonder, then, that we put a huge amount of stock into rational thought, research, and academia. Most people I know, regardless of their faith background (or lack thereof), have deep desire and appreciation for truth. In our post-Christian culture, scientific reason is a way to grasp for it, while avoiding the religious angle that some people see as the superstitious spiritual mumbo-jumbo of the past. The danger, though, is that science and Reason can easily become new versions of the old temple altar, complete with worship, ritual, and cult-like subservience. We are as quick as ever to make idols out of our own thoughts and theories.

Science, or at least armchair science, has become the ultimate trump card to settle most disagreements. If we’ve got a question, there’s “a study” for that. If we’re looking for humankind’s bright future, it’s going to come riding in on the back of technological advancement. Even if we’re wrestling with a moral or spiritual quandary, there are double-blind statistical surveys that tell us everything we need to know. Or so we’re led to believe. Altogether, it’s why I’d say that Reason is the next biggest influence, after personal Experience, on our society’s turn toward wholesale approval of LGBTQ identity.

A big part of the cultural transition began in 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association notably shifted homosexuality to the category “sexual orientation disturbance.” This removed the previous stigma of same-sex attraction being treated by default as a pathology: a disease, disorder, or neurosis. From that time to today, much research has focused on establishing the genetic or inborn causes of same-sex attraction. In one landmark example in 1993, Dean Hamer published the idea of a “gay gene” which quickly gained widespread popular traction. Countless others have tried to solidify the theory that sexual identity falls squarely on the side of nature rather than nurture. There are some gigantic benefits to this recent scientific approach to LGBTQ identity. Just like with personal experience, it has helped us all grow in the right direction by no longer categorizing LGBTQ-identified people as sexual deviants, perverts, criminals, etc. On those counts, our culture was tragically mistaken in the past, with Christians (and “Christians”) at the forefront of the worst behavior. Science is helping draw us all toward healthy tolerance.

But, alongside this good progress, there are also serious rational issues in today’s common understanding of the science of sexuality. For instance, the assumption that LBGTQ identity is genetic has had huge repercussions in our society. “If same-sex attraction is no different from eye color,” some say, “then it’s a natural part of a person’s being and should be approved of.” An avalanche of conclusions has followed. “If homosexuality is in someone’s genes, then they’re born this way. If they’re born this way, then it must be from God. If it’s from God then same-sex practice must be holy. If same-sex practice is holy then so is same-sex marriage.” The problem is, I’d wager that most scientists never meant to wade into most of these questions. I don’t think they usually mean for their research to produce deep-seated theological conclusions. And I’m not sure any scientist worth their salt believes that even a single one of these conclusions has been established as scientific fact.

So, why does the general public so widely subscribe to the genetic explanation for same-sex attraction? Why is it all so easily taken for granted? Before we take such great leaps, before we get swept up in the avalanche, there are serious questions to ask. There are three that immediately spring to mind for me…

Reasonable Question #1

Let’s start with the central question: what causes same-sex attraction? Or, as the question is most commonly phrased, “Isn’t homosexuality genetic?” If we submit to Reason, then I feel sure the answer is as crystal clear as: yes, and no, and…we don’t know.

Countless studies have tried to discover the biological factors that contribute to same-sex attraction. There’s a laundry-list of possibilities. Anatomists have taken close looks at the structure of the brain, because the size of the hypothalamus might have coincidence with LGBTQ identity in men. Doctors have investigated fraternal birth order. There’s a higher incidence of LGBTQ identity in boys who are the younger in a line of brothers. The theory goes that, to a pregnant mother, a boy in the womb is almost like a foreign body (since boys have genetic material that girls don’t). So, the mother’s immune system may respond over time, affecting the hormonal environment of the womb. The more boys a mother has, the more pronounced the response might be, which may affect the child’s biology and shape sexual identity later in life. Interesting stuff.

Twin studies are also a rich area of study. On one hand, twin studies seem to show a genetic influence on sexuality, because identical twins (genetically identical, raised in the same home) have a higher incidence of common sexual identity than fraternal twins (similar genes, raised in the same home). At the same time, though, just because one identical twin identifies as LGBTQ doesn’t mean both will; in fact, it’s common that they both don’t. It seems to point out a genetic factor in some cases of LGBTQ identity, but not direct causation. So how much do genes contribute to our sexuality? Several researchers conclude that it’s significantly less than the genetic influence for conditions like alcoholism, Alzheimer’s, and hypertension.

The most recent and exhaustive study of this kind was actually just released in the Fall of 2019. While most comparable studies have only ever involved a few hundred subjects, and almost exclusively men, this one investigated nearly half a million men and women using databases from services like “23andMe.” The study found that there were five points in common in the human genome across this sample. Interestingly, two of these points seemed to involve genes that guide the way our sense of smell develops (with the idea that smell plays a key role in detecting pheromones and being attracted to people). The overall conclusion was that genetic effects account for only 32% of whether someone will have same-sex sex. These scientists also added to a long line of those who have found zero evidence of Hamer’s original theory of the “gay gene.” Are these results the end of the story? By no means. More study is guaranteed to come.

Researchers also spend plenty of time and energy looking at other possible influences on sexual identity outside of genetics. Psychoanalytic theory, last widely popular in the 1960s, always placed the root causes of LGBTQ identity in the parent-child relationship. You’ve no doubt heard before in popular conversation that people are gay because of unfulfilled love from an absent father or mother. The psychoanalytic perspective, however, seems nearly impossible to corroborate.

Case workers have also done deep dives into whether childhood abandonment, neglect, or sexual assault have influences on later sexual identity. It turns out there’s little or no evidence of a connection with abandonment/neglect, but sexual assault is another story. Children who experience sexual trauma appear to be three times as likely to have LGBTQ orientation later in life, and in some cases it’s an even higher proportion. There’s also evidence that adult victims of sexual assault can go on to experience effects on their sexual identity.

Another environmental factor in sexuality might be social structure. Several studies have investigated the impact of a person being raised in an environment that puts a premium on social conformity (sticking to traditional sexual roles) versus non-conformity (exploring outside traditional roles). It seems that cultures that prioritize social conformity see a much smaller incidence of LGBTQ identity, nearer the global average of 2-3%. Environments that encourage non-conformity, notably the urban United States, see LGBTQ identification closer to 10%.

Again, none of these observed patterns tells the whole story or creates a standard rule. Every single one comes with contradictions. Even the demonstrable factors, like childhood sexual trauma, come with major exceptions – plenty of children who experience sexual trauma, or who are raised in cultures that elevate non-conformity, do not go on to identify as LGBTQ. Plenty of LGBTQ persons report no history of sexual trauma, and come from cultures that strongly reinforce conformity. This entire picture is why the American Psychiatric Association sums its stance up this way:

“There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”

Bear in mind that the APA is one of the most secular organizations you’ll find. I think their statement, the consensus of the scientific community, and personal Reason all pretty clearly undermine the false conclusions that dominate our culture, that either people always choose their sexual attractions, or people are simply born with them.

Reasonable Question #2

I think having wrestled with what causes same-sex attraction, an immediate follow-up question is in order: Does the cause of same-sex attraction matter? I ask that because we could probably all stand to reflect on why we even want to know. If the causes of same-sex attraction turned out to be totally environmental, would we want to look into how we can prevent it from happening? Would we want to place blame, or would parents find an outlet for the way they blame themselves? Would we delight in taking away the genetic “excuse”? Do we want to believe that, if environment caused this, then maybe sexual orientation is subject to future change? Think about it.

Or, if the causes of same-sex attraction turned out to be totally genetic, do we want to immediately give God credit for it? Do we want to throw away all individual responsibility? Do we want to believe that there could be a genetic “cure”? Think about it.

A friend and I were talking one day and arrived at a kind of imaginary scenario worth considering. Imagine a future where you can have a full biological work-up done in a matter of seconds, your whole genome sequenced and categorized. Imagine that we’ve identified every possible genetic marker for all manner of behavior, and it’s 100% accurate. I know, it’s very Gattaca. In that future, imagine there’s a whole panel of markers to determine a person’s biological sexuality. Maybe everybody would get a color-coded badge representing their place on the sexual spectrum. In that future, what if there are people who don’t test positive for the biology of LGBTQ identity, but they still feel same-sex attraction and want to identify that way? What if people do test positive as biologically LGBTQ, but identify as straight? Which one of these folks is ethically, morally, or spiritually right? Which person is “being their true selves”? Which group should qualify for same-sex marriage? Should the pastor first ask to see their genetic badges, to be sure that the bride and groom, or the groom and groom, or the bride and bride, all test positive for the proper God-given sexuality? Oh, dang.

Take it one more step: what if we have the choice in this future to “fix” the genes related to homosexuality? And what if, even having “fixed” everybody’s genes, some people still identify as LGBTQ? Think about it. For one thing, I’m not so sure this sort of future is that far away. For another thing, it tells me that determining the causes of same-sex attraction might not be as big a deal as I once thought. Why? Because no matter the causes behind LGBTQ identity, I think two things appear equally true:

1. Some parts of sexuality aren’t a simple matter of choice.

Wherever they come from, most of us have very little control over our core sexual attractions. Habit and repetition and exposure seem to have some affect on who and what we’re drawn to. But there’s overwhelming evidence that our most basic attractions can almost never be changed. “Reparative therapy,” the practice of trying to transform someone from a same-sex to an opposite-sex attraction, just has little or no evidence of success. There are some unique stories out there, and I don’t put anything past the realm of possibility, but it’s an uncommon outcome. Some things aren’t a simple matter of choice. But, at the same time…

2. There’s always choice involved in our sexuality.

This sounds a little bit like Yoda doing a back-and-forth. Is it a choice or isn’t it? Well, even if we exert little control over the origin of our attractions, every single one of us has complete control over how we respond to our sexual attractions. We are endowed by God with freedom of will. Nothing can take it away. Nothing, and no one. Not Satan or temptation — our hand cannot ever be truly forced in anything. Not even God will do that, in God’s infinite desire for us to be free.

We get to choose our ultimate identity for ourselves. No matter our attractions, where they come from, or how strong they are, we have countless options for how we identify, and it doesn’t even have to include our sexuality. In fact, our faith is a calling to identify in Christ, first and last, from beginning to end. While that Christian identity can by all means include holy sexual practice, we are not deficient, repressed, incomplete beings simply because we choose not to act on our attractions – gay or straight.

Dr. Mark Yarhouse, a Christian clinical psychologist, describes this observation in one encounter with a young man wrestling with his faith and sexuality:

“A few years ago I provided a consultation to a young adult and his parents. He was grateful to hear that I did not think he chose his attraction to the same sex. He was worried that a Christian counselor might have thought his attractions were up to him. But when I shared with him the three-tier distinction between same-sex attraction, a homosexual orientation, and a gay identity, he was frustrated to hear that he still had choices to make.

…he believed that once the question of what causes homosexuality was settled – once we were all in agreement that he did not choose his same-sex attraction – we would move on to helping his parents deal with it better. He thought they needed to be more supportive of his personal desire…. He had not thought of himself as a person who still had choices to make. He hadn’t thought about whether he should engage in same-sex behavior or form his identity around his attraction. He assumed that was a foregone conclusion.” (Homosexuality and the Christian).

So, does the cause of same-sex attraction even matter? I’d say probably not very much at all in our Christian faith. Because, genetic or not, every single one of us is predisposed to a whole host of sinful habits and behaviors, but it does not affect the power of God’s grace for us. Grace to call out to every one of us just as we are. Grace to save every one of us, from top to bottom. Grace to sanctify every one of us, so that we never remain as we were.

Reasonable Question #3

A final, broader takeaway question for the lens of Reason is, does science provide simple answers to questions of faith? There’s zero doubt that science opens our eyes, that we’ve discovered almost limitless ways to observe and experience the universe. But sometimes more information doesn’t necessarily make for more knowledge…or more wisdom…or more of God’s truth. Back to that sticky word – interpretation – should we as people of faith ever lay to rest our deepest struggles or most challenging convictions simply “BECAUSE SCIENCE!”?

For instance, with human sexuality, scientific data has done a great deal to bring light to the wider sexual spectrum, notably intersex and transsexual persons – people who are born with external physical anatomy (like genitalia) and internal physical anatomy (like organs, hormones, chromosomes) that do not align with a traditional binary understanding of male and female. These cases represent a tiny minority of people, but they’re one more part of the larger, complex picture of sexuality. Progressives tend to point toward this complexity as scientific evidence that there’s no such thing as “normal,” that humans should have little or no broad standards for sexual identity because everyone fits their own unique mold. Progressive Christians assert that this same complexity is a sign of God’s intentional bid for diversity in creation; they claim that God means for these things to be as they are, and it’s all to be celebrated.

Traditionalists typically respond by pointing out that more than 99% of humans are either male or female by common scientific standards. It doesn’t discount that we are each unique and priceless in God’s sight, but it is to remind us all that norms exist and can reflect God’s intended good for humanity. As much as we should never demonize anyone who doesn’t fit broader norms, our culture also shouldn’t demonize the obvious norms themselves. To judge by human anatomy, for instance, heterosexuality appears to be awfully normative – the penis and the vagina are literally tailored directly to one another. Never thought I’d write or say that out loud, but here we are! No one can deny that our anatomy has evolved together, male and female, to work together. It’s also impossible to deny the most normative scientific fact of all: every single human being alive today, and every one to ever live, is the product of the miraculous interaction between male sperm and female egg. No matter a person’s sexual attractions or sexual identity, we all come from this single, common, heterosexual origin.

Even more importantly, many Christians recognize that nature’s complexity isn’t always as simple as “the diversity that God intended.” We live in a fallen, broken world – we’re fallen and broken ourselves – therefore we trust that God’s intended “original perfection” in creation is not exactly what we experience today. Discerning which aspects of Mother Nature are as God intended, and which aren’t, is supremely daunting. Did God originally intend for there to be mosquitoes, viruses, and tsunamis – or, no, not at all? Did God always intend for predators to kill and eat their prey, or was every species (including humans) originally meant to go vegan? How did the Fall change the natural order? Maybe life on earth was always going to have some measure of the danger and risk that we see today, only God originally intended for us to navigate this beautiful, perilous world through a direct, obedient, loving connection with God. In other words, we’re in a wilderness designed perfectly just for us, only we’ve been separated from our beloved partner who just happened to be our expert in survival. God only knows for sure. But my point is this: faithful discernment about the natural world is incredibly complicated.

There are far tougher, more personal questions as well. Think about Down’s Syndrome. Being born with an extra chromosome affects physical and mental development; it can contribute to hearing loss, difficulty in speech, depleted muscle tone and joint health, heart problems, and a reduced lifespan. Children with Down’s can require extra time, resources, and attention in order to have their best shot at life. But those who know and love any person with Down’s Syndrome will pretty much universally acknowledge that these folks are a unique blessing to them and to others. They are beautiful souls, and the human race is infinitely better because there are people of all kinds just like them. So, in what way does their genetic makeup reflect God’s purposes? If you have an easy answer for that, I’m all ears. For me, the closest thing is to say, “Thank you, Lord, for every sign of your redeeming work, sowing such goodness and grace in the middle of so much brokenness.”

But there are even tougher questions than Down’s Syndrome. There are illnesses and “defects,” disasters and other realities on planet Earth that appear to have no redeemable quality of their own. As the statistic goes, something like 40,000 children will die today, and every single day, from lack of clean water and food. There are just not enough resources in in every place to serve every population. Famine and drought, climate, complicated economics, and good old-fashioned greed all play a part. Please don’t come around me with any talk about the “circle of life” in the face of that tragedy. I don’t find a silver lining or a Godly purpose, not in this world, when it comes to those lives and many others.

What’s my point? Is this some melodramatic tangent? No. My point is that Christians ought to know better than to make simple connections between (1) what we observe in the natural world, and (2) what “must surely reflect the good and perfect will of God.” As Methodists, above all, we emphasize that God isn’t some sovereign tyrant who micro-manages the affairs of every creature. God leaves room in creation for our choices, our best and our worst choices, and life on earth reflects the fact. Thus, the sweeping conclusion that “I am as my biology has made me, which is exactly as God must have intended,” is one of the most foolish theological leaps any of us can ever buy into.

Closing Thoughts

I doubt that Biology, as a discipline, ever set out to make such a spiritual statement. And, in all fairness, if we can admit that the opening chapters of Genesis aren’t trying to serve as an exhaustive textbook on the origin of species, then we ought to also be able to admit that geneticists aren’t trying to determine whether or not God is delighted in my individual actions.

We can do better, and dig deeper, than surrendering our free will to some predetermined path encoded in our DNA. We are beings originally formed in the image of God, shaped by nature and nurture, fallen and broken, but just as equally forgiven and redeemed by God’s grace. Every one of us.

So, once again, Reason, as excellent and as God-given as it is, cannot stand on its own. Just like Experience, it needs to rest alongside the other lenses of the quadrilateral.

Join us next week as we continue through the lens of “Tradition.”