God, Gay Marriage, and Gag Reflexes: Why We Need to Talk About Teleology

By | September 2, 2013

A recent article entitled “The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and ‘Gay Marriage’” has occasioned much comment in the Christian blogosphere.

In it Thabiti Anyabwile, writing for The Gospel Coalition, outlines what he thinks is a novel approach for Christians to engage the same-sex marriage question in the public square. “Most people,” Anyabwile argues, “have a visceral reaction, a gag reflex, when they think about sex between two men or two women,” and for too long professional gay activists have set the terms of the cultural debate by talking about everything except “what goes on in the bedroom.” Instead, he tells us, they have discreetly moved the discussion on to more savory topics such as love, civil rights, medical insurance, and the like.thabiti1

Anyabwile’s proposed solution to this problem is that we must simply return “the discussion to sexual behavior in all its yuckiest gag-inducing truth.” At first Christians are “going to have accept the fact that we aren’t going to be liked” for doing this. But eventually the surrounding culture will, he seems to think, thank us for pointing out what they have really known all along—but were just suppressing—about how disgusting homosexuality is. To this end, Anyabwile’s article includes several graphic descriptions of homosexual sex acts intended to prove his point, and to provoke the reader’s “gag reflex.” He concludes (apparently without irony) by reminding us to engage this question with “much kindness, insight, warmth and fairness.”

Anyabwile’s no-nonsense approach to confronting sexual vice might be appealing to some embedded in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. After all, we are not Kantians who care only about presenting moral arguments in cold, rationalistic syllogisms. We are interested in cultivating not just habits of right action, but a healthy moral imagination imbued with a love of the good, the true, and the beautiful. We want to train our affections (and to help others to train theirs) to love what is holy and to be repulsed by what is sinful. Judging by the lurid descriptions of gay sexual practices (and grisly statistics illustrating their medical consequences) which I’ve come across time and again in socially conservative Christian literature on homosexuality, Anyabwile is far from being the only person who thinks the best way to defend traditional sexual mores is by provoking the “gag reflex.”

But there is an insurmountable problem with using these sorts of arguments in a largely secular conversation. Though Anyabwile bills his argument as relying solely on the “gag reflex,” what it actually relies on is teleology: the idea that things can be defined by the purpose for which they were created. When we argue that X body part is for this purpose, Y orifice is for that purpose, and hence combining them in Z manner violates the purposes of both, this is a statement in which every part of the description relies on a teleological understanding of the world. When we take away the assumption that we live in a meaningful universe endowed with purpose by its Creator, this argument simply falls apart. It is literally incomprehensible.

Yet it seems to me that in twenty-first century America it is this—a Christian teleological worldview in which things have purposes defined by their Creator—and not the gag reflex, that is precisely the thing we can’t take for granted. I suspect Anyabwile and other social conservatives would have quite a shock if they actually tried their gross-out strategy on real people that didn’t already share their worldview. Anyabwile evidently thinks that their reaction is going to be something along the lines of, “wow, when you describe gay sex like that, it really is disgusting.” Instead, in a world stripped of teleological meaning and purpose, the response is likely to be something more akin to, “well, when you describe it like that, of course it sounds gross, but I prefer to describe it differently.”

Logically speaking, one can believe in a sort of teleology without being a Christian. Aristotle believed things existed for a purpose and could be defined according to that purpose, yet he was neither a Christian nor even a theist in the modern sense. But, for Aristotle, teleology is largely assumed, not argued for. He is hardly helpful, therefore, in our present predicament. We can point to Aristotle as an example that proves non-Christians can have a teleological worldview, but not as an argument that they ought to see the world in this way. Aristotle’s thought was taken up by the medieval scholastics into a Christian synthesis, and with the rejection of that synthesis by the modern world, all notions of teleology have been junked.

This is one reason why so many attempts by Christians to present a defense of traditional marriage in “non-religious terms” fail abysmally.  Arguments presented in non-religious language often still rely on a whole series of presumptions which are incomprehensible to non-Christians, and just because you’ve managed to make a case without the explicit use of theological terminology, it does not mean that a case has been made that is actually understandable and convincing to anyone except other Christians (I can’t be the only who has noticed that almost no non-religious defenses of traditional marriage are actually written by non-religious people).

Naturally, I am not arguing that the solution to this problem is to foist the entire Gospel upon non-Christians every time we wish to make a point in a public debate. St. Paul tells us that those who are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” should be fed on milk, and only those “who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” should be given the meat of “solid food” (Heb 5:13-14). But we can at least realize that this is a problem. Many Catholics think the best way to engage the gay marriage issue and other “culture wars” topics is not simply by not feeding people meat right now, but by hiding the meat in the cupboard and bolting the door to ensure it rots away without ever seeing the light of day, and relying instead on a jumble of sociological studies, junk science, and statistics that probably don’t even qualify as nutritious “milk.”

One of the most popular definitions of “traditional marriage” that its defenders are fond of quoting is that given by Lord Penzance in the famous English polygamy case of Hyde v. Hyde (1866). Lord Penzance defined marriage, for the purposes of Common Law, as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others.” What is usually omitted from this quotation, however, is the justification that he gave for this definition. He did not claim to be expounding the findings of the social sciences or even the natural law abstractly conceived, but the “the nature of this institution [i.e., marriage] as understood in Christendom.” It is this that Christians should be defending: Christian marriage, not “traditional” marriage, because ultimately it is God who makes the natural law law, and not merely a series of correlations. If the ultimate telos is removed from the picture, no other telos makes sense. Precisely because it is the true vision, the Christian vision of marriage has the answers to questions people are already asking. This is how Christianity shows its “reasonableness” in the public forum. Not by pretending it isn’t Christianity, but by showing that Christianity is, as Justin Martyr was fond of saying, “the true philosophy.”

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  • Michael Bradley

    “(I can’t be the only who has noticed that almost no non-religious defenses of traditional marriage are actually written by non-religious people).”

    I grant you the point, but I would say that this fact is due more to the fact that non-religious believers lack the sort of support or motivation or impetus to defend conjugal marriage as the stakes increasingly rise.

    Obviously there were (are) legal and philosophical marriage traditions that predated Christianity (significantly) and ran parallel to but were distinct from the Christianized view of marriage. I’m not sure how effective a strategy it would be to reduce “traditional marriage” to an essentially religious concept, as opposed to emphasizing that “traditional marriage” is a natural or human institution into which religious concepts of marriage also fit, and well.

  • Michael Bradley

    Also, to a western world shaped and saturated by neo-Darwinian materialism, I’m not sure how much purchase appeals to teleology are likely to have in public discussions, especially philosophical ones, though again I agree with your larger point that we can’t hide all the “meat” in the cupboard.

  • Aaron Taylor

    Michael, I agree that appeals to teleology will have a limited purchase on a thought-world shaped by “neo-Darwinian materialism.” But I’m not the one making these appeals. Thabiti Anyabwile is. And so are many other culture warriors, even if they don’t realize they are doing it. I’m merely calling out defenders of traditional marriage for appealing to a quasi-religious teleology while at the same time claiming they are really appealing to non-religious public reasons. So, your point is a point in my favor.

    Would a more integral defense of Christian marriage such as I am advocating have a limited purchase on public discussion? Certainly. But before you dismiss it as a sensible strategy, consider these questions:

    1) When it comes to “public discussion,” don’t Christians have a responsibility to try and raise the moral tone of that discussion, instead of trying to frame our case in secular utilitarian terms? And if we can’t be bothered to try and raise the moral tone of the public discussion, how can we complain about its decline?

    2) Honesty is a universal moral value. If you were an advocate of gay marriage, which opponent would you treat with more respect: a) the Christian who is honest about his Christian motivation for defending marriage, or b) the Christian who strains the bounds of credulity by claiming he is defending marriage for solely non-religious reasons? (I’m not saying those who claim to be offering non-religious defenses are intentionally dishonest. I doubt they realize their own reliance on hidden religious premises. My point is merely that it is perceived as dishonesty by their intellectual opponents, and that this causes distrust and ill-will, the fruits of which are readily apparent in our public discourse.)

    3) By claiming that we are defending marriage for solely “non-religious reasons,” we simply lend support to the prevailing cultural prejudice that religion is a) irrational and b) a private matter that has no place in public life. Is this something that we really want to be doing as Christians?

    4) Yes, an integral defense of Christian marriage has a limited cultural purchase, but given that the current approach taken by many traditional marriage defenders of relying on statistics and ubiquitous social science “studies” (which they treat with quasi-scriptural authority) has a) spectacularly failed, and b) resulted in everyone thinking Christians are bigots, is it really likely that the approach I advocate could be any *less* successful than the current one?

  • Chevalier de Johnstone

    Well put, but I think you’re wrong when you assert that the solution is not to “foist the entire Gospel on non-Christians”. Moral teleology is holistic; there is no separability clause. Christians cannot win this argument without being Christian, and Christianity does not begin or end with opposition to homosexual marriage. The only way to “win” this argument is to create a comforting, loving, well-ordered Christian society, and the only way to do that is to stop engaging in individual political debates regarding matters of religious dogma and simply go out and live as Christians. If the ruling temporal authority passes laws making our beliefs criminal this is not a defeat for the Church; it is the normal course of affairs. We can hope we don’t have to prove Tertullian correct that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church,” but well, there it is.

    The reason why Christians are losing this argument is that we have placed winning the argument on a pedestal above simply being Christians. Mr. Anyabwile is probably correct that using shock and disgust can be a compelling rhetorical tactic; it is also not very Christian.

  • Chevalier de Johnstone

    Please note for clarification I am not actually condoning that we foist or force the Gospel on others. I am saying that the acceptance of the Gospel is the only way that we win. Therefore we should expect to lose, since forced conversion is unChristian. To be Christian is to expect to lose all temporal battles and then die, but to persist in our faith regardless because the promised rewards are not of this Kingdom. We need to give up this infantile modernist belief that political battles are “winnable” by Christians. They are not; we must persist in fighting them specifically because we cannot possibly hope to win. We know that we cannot win because we know that when Christ returns to us again it will not be to a world of peace and love and prosperity. We persist not because we have any hope of saving the world but because our persistence prepares our souls for the salvation that comes through Him.

  • Nancy D.

    From The Beginning, Christians recognize that every human person has been created in The Image and Likeness of God, equal in dignity, while being complementary as a son or daughter, and thus worthy of being treated with dignity and respect in private as well as in public. Same-sex sexual acts, or any sexual act that does not respect the personal and relational dignity of the human person, violate our right to be treated with dignity and respect.

    Marriage exists for the good of the husband, the good of the wife, and thus the good of the new family that is created when a man and woman are united in marriage as husband and wife. No State or person should be condoning and affirming any act, including any sexual act, that does not respect our human Dignity, and is thus, a human rights violation.

  • Nancy D.

    “When the Son of Man returns will He find Faith on Earth?” – Jesus The Christ
    Chevelier,
    While it is true that Love is not possessive, nor is it coercive, nor does it serve to manipulate for the sake of gratification, it is the modernists, not the followers of Christ, who refuse to call sin, sin, because they do not desire to accept God’s transforming Grace and Mercy.

    In regards to the desire to engage in sinful conduct, “Who am I to judge”, is the battle cry of those who do not want to lead others to Salvation.

  • Heidi

    As someone who is on the opposite side of this debate (a supporter of the legality and morality of same-sex marriage), but who also was raised in the Christian faith (conservative evangelical fundamentalist), I offer my opinion from this side of the fence:

    First, you state that “When we argue that X body part is for this purpose, Y orifice is for that purpose, and hence combining them in Z manner violates the purposes of both, this is a statement in which every part of the description relies on a teleological understanding of the world. When we take away the assumption that we live in a meaningful universe endowed with purpose by its Creator, this argument simply falls apart. It is literally incomprehensible.”

    I’m afraid that your argument falls apart and is literally incomprehensible to anyone who does not already share your specific religious beliefs. Here is why: even if you convince people that we must start from the premise that we live in a meaningful universe endowed with purpose by its Creator, it does not follow that certain body parts have only one purpose and any other use of those parts is forbidden. Things (and parts) may, and often do, have more than one purpose. My index finger may be used to point at something, to scratch my ear, to press a crease on folded paper, to tap keys on a keyboard…you get the idea. If I decide tomorrow that I will not use my index finger for the purpose of pointing, I may still properly use it for all of its other purposes.

  • Heidi

    cont. from above:

    Even if we limit this “proper purposes for body parts” discussion to the relevant parts–the parts used for sexual purposes–we still find that many, even most, of these parts serve more than one purpose. The male reproductive organ, for example, is used for the purposes of sexual pleasure, reproduction, and the expulsion of liquid waste from the body. The female breasts may be used for the purposes of sexual pleasure and for feeding an infant. Thus, because these parts have multiple purposes, the ONLY way your argument can make any sense is if we also accept the premises that: (a) there are only a limited number of purposes for certain parts; (b) that some purposes are inherently wrong; and maybe even (c) that some parts have mandatory purposes (i.e., that reproduction is a command to follow and not a matter of individual choice–one might say this idea is reflective of Catholic teaching, and yet there are exceptions even to this mandate, such as the sanctioning and requirement of celibacy for priests and nuns).

    I certainly agree with you that you lose credibility with anyone who does not already believe as you do when you try to disguise a religious-based argument in non-religious terms. I find such assertions of non-religious grounds for opposition to same-sex marriage to be downright disingenuous. Even if we ultimately agree to disagree, I can at least respect an opponent who admits that his opposition is grounded in a religious understanding.

  • Heidi

    second cont. from above:

    However, the problems for your side if you admit that your opposition to same-sex marriage is faith-based, instead of trying to disguise it behind alleged non-religious arguments, are that: (a) your faith-based arguments have no relevance to a secular audience; and (b) there is no uniform position on this subject that is held by all Christians–in fact, many Christians (this one included) absolutely disagree with your religious interpretations and conclusions.

    I think it is this latter point that reveals why you will ultimately lose the public debate on same-sex marriage (if you have not already lost). If all Christians believed as you do, you could use the simple fact that most U.S. citizens identify as Christian in order to thwart attempts to change civil marriage laws. To a certain extent, you already have done so–at least until now. However, more and more Christians are rejecting the idea that homosexuality is immoral, that God expects those with homosexual orientation to live celibate lives, to attempt to “change” their orientation, or most egregiously, to enter into sham “heterosexual” marriages. More and more Christians understand homosexuality to be an innate and immutable characteristic, and they find it impossible to conclude that a loving and merciful God would punish or condemn gay people for desiring the same exact things that everyone else desires–romantic and intimate love with another, family, commitment, etc.

  • Heidi

    third (and last) cont. from above:

    And it is because of this that the religious-based opposition to same-sex marriage is doomed to fail. Indeed, many Christians are tired of being lumped in with those who would deny respect, compassion, dignity, and equal treatment under the law to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. For these people, marriage equality is important BECAUSE of their religious faith, NOT in spite of it!

    Of course, even among those Christians who believe that same-sex sexual activity (and marriage) is immoral, there are still many who understand that in a civil, pluralistic society that is based on the rule of secular law, religion is not a legitimate reason for depriving an entire class of one’s fellow citizens of the legal rights and protections afforded to everyone else. These are Christians who say, “I believe it is wrong, but I do not believe that I have the right to force anyone else to live according to my beliefs.” These are also Americans who believe that the Constitution protects, and applies to, ALL citizens.

    Thus, I agree with your point that religious opposition to legal same-sex marriage should not try to disguise itself as non-religious opposition. We can all see right through the disguise. However, in sum, the major flaws (or unstated assumptions) in your argument are that: (a) you assume that there can be only certain (self-evident) purposes for body parts; and (b) you assume that the only “Christian” viewpoint is your own.

  • Aaron Taylor

    Heidi, I think you are the one making assumptions here. You say I am arguing that “certain body parts have only one purpose and any other use of those parts is forbidden.” Where do I say that above? The answer: I don’t. For the record, I do accept the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexual acts, but that’s just a different conversation entirely. Here, I am debunking Anyabwile’s argument against sodomy, not offering one of my own (though I have plenty).

    On “Christian marriage,” yes, you’re correct to assume I think it is between a man and a woman. However, I’ve been around the block enough to know there are Christians who disagree with me, and many of them are sincere people who offer religious reasons for their disagreement. I think they’re wrong, but I’ve never denied they exist or that they’re Christian, either here or elsewhere.

    To be frank, the specious idea of “marriage equality” offends my gay sensibilities as much as my Christian ones. The idea that queer folks only deserve the respect of allegedly “pluralistic” society (because America is not conformist at all) when they attempt to become indistinguishable from heterosexuals in almost every way is as absurd as saying that the best way to achieve gender equality and respect for women is to give them all surgery to make them male. So, if you want to have a “secular” discussion about who is owed respect and protection by the political community, let’s begin by respecting the specificities of queer experience.