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Speaking the truth in obnoxious, insufferable love

July 15, 2016

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By now, within certain segments of the population, it is almost entirely assumed that anyone who opposes same-sex relationships does so out of hatred or fear. I asked some people whether they thought there could be any non-homophobic (that is, non-fear-based or hate-based) sexual ethics that opposed same-sex relationships, and one of the responses I received back was very interesting: this respondent commented that arguments against same-sex marriage were almost always based in fear…fear of negative consequences to society…fear of negative consequences to the participants or their children…and so on.

This was very intriguing to me. I normally don’t associate evaluation of consequences (positive vs negative, pros vs cons) as a fear-based sort of activity…however, from looking at this perspective, I could see how, if one thought that, then pretty much any evaluation in terms of avoiding negative consequences could be deemed fear-based.

(I didn’t press the person too hard on this line of reasoning, but I suspect that they would have added something else — like saying that homophobia is not just fear-based, but it is based on fear that has not been justified by evidence, and that that’s what it means for it to be an “irrational” fear. So, to a supporter of same-sex relationships and marriage, the negative consequences that opponents are supposedly “afraid of” are not supported by evidence, and thus, those fears are not justified. In contrast, even the same-sex marriage supporter might oppose other things based on negative consequences by arguing that those “fears” are justified by evidence, and thus not -phobic.

(In this way, comparisons to pedophilia are anathema not just because of the atrocious historical comparisons that have also been made, but also because, as any LGBT supporter would argue, pedophilia actually harms children, whereas same-sex relationships do not harm the people involved or society. [People will of course still disagree on that.])

That was a long parenthetical statement, and certainly, many people could find a lot to disagree with. For example, depending on what one defines as a harm or a negative consequence, one could certainly disagree that same-sex sexuality is harmless for its participants or society. That in part seems to be part of the persisting opposition from traditional Christian sexual ethics.

But, secondly, and what I want to discuss today, comes a more profound and basic disagreement about what is hatred vs what is love.

What is love? Baby don’t hurt me.

After all, no Christian — not even Westboro Baptist (…?!) will concede that their actions or beliefs are hateful. To the contrary, they will always assert that their actions are loving — perhaps even the most loving response. I am reminded of a passage from Ephesians chapter 4:

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves,and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Instructions for Christian Living

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longerlive as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of Godbecause of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

Emphasis added. “Speaking the truth in love”.

My recent most frequent (and probably only?) commenter to this blog, Agellius, has been sending me blog posts from Christian philosopher Edward Feser. The most recent link was one on love. In this post, Feser establishes how Christians (or at least Thomistic/Catholic Christians) view love, and then how modern society often distorts from the Christian view. Just a snippet:

Thus do we have the sentimentalization (or Burt Bacharachization) of love, on which a “loving” community or society comes to be understood as a society in which pleasant feelings of a certain sort are widespread.  Unsurprisingly, loving one’s enemies comes to seem incompatible with punishing them.  For isn’t the will to inflict punishment typically associated with negative feelings toward the one being punished?  And doesn’t its infliction cause unpleasant feelings inthe one being punished?

Furthermore, where matters of sex are concerned, if pleasant feelings of a romantic or affectionate sort exist between any two people, how could this fail to count as “love,” and thus something any Christian ought to celebrate?  And if disapproval of people’s sexual behavior causes in them unpleasant feelings (for example, feelings of guilt, or the unpleasantness associated with being judged), how could such disapproval fail to count as “hatred”?

This is all quite silly given an analysis like Aquinas’s, on which unpleasant feelings can be associated with what is good (for example, getting the punishment one deserves) and pleasant feelings can be associated with what is bad (for example, sexually immoral behavior), and on which love is essentially a matter of the will rather than a matter of having certain feelings.  Hence, since love is essentially a matter of willing what is good for someone, it is perfectly possible to love someone while affirming that some behavior that gives him pleasant feelings is bad (as when one disapproves of an adulterous relationship), or while harboring negative feelings about him (as when one finds it agreeable to see a criminal getting his just deserts, even though one also sincerely hopes and prays for that criminal’s repentance).

While Agellius actually sent me this article because it went along with a few conversations we had on another post about subjective morality (and boy, does Feser have a lot to say about the implications of subjectivism…), today I’m thinking more about the practical implications of the Christian perspective on love.

In online Mormon circles, there has been continuing consternation over the November policy to define same-sex relationships as apostasy (thus calling for a court of love for excommunication), and barring the children of a parent in a same-sex relationship from being baptized until they are 18 and renounce their parent’s same-sex relationship. This has been exacerbated by continued reports of suicides of LGBT youth and teens since the policy.

Writers like Brian Whitney have written that everyone must break silence on behalf of LGBT brothers and sisters within the Mormon church. Yet, in the comments on those articles, not everyone is convinced — see the comments by Jonathan Cavender especially especially. Cavender’s comments are (predictably) taken very harshly, but they definitely fit (at least to me) with Feser’s comments, or with the idea of “speaking the truth in love”:

[Rebe, another commenter] “Our job isn’t to “motivate” another to change. A true friend will stand by another and encourage and lift them and support them.”

[Cavender] Again, your two sentences contradict. We encourage and lift and support someone by helping them to change for the better. If a person stays where they are after we interact with them, we have not lifted them.

Tough Love

From the perspective that same-sex relationships are sin, then not preaching against that sin is a failure to uplift and support. Because if one does view same-sex relationships as sin, then to love (that is, to “will the good” for the other) would require advising against that.

That makes sense to me. Not saying that I agree with it, but it makes sense as an internally consistent response. But to me, there are practical questions.

Quite frankly, a lot of people aren’t going to buy into this view of love (whether they do so out of a defective definition of love or there are just sincere differences in worldviews), and so, a lot of people — no matter what Christians say — are not going to view this as loving behavior.

So, at some point, the Christian, speaking what they view as the truth in love, is going to be seen or understood by others to be intolerable — not simply intolerant (although that’s another word that goes around), but intolerable. And what does that mean for the Christian?

My father has said several times that one should never give advise — the foolish won’t take it, and the wise don’t need it. I suspect that my father’s circuitous ways of talking (and maybe Jesus’s too) are purposefully designed to avoid giving unsolicited feedback.

And I see the wisdom of this. I know it can be frustrating both to give and to receive unsolicited feedback, so through hard-earned experience, I have learned that it’s sometimes more harmonious just to let people live as they will be and find out through their own experience what will happen. Even if I think I could help them avoid a pitfall, if I don’t think they are going to be receptive to that message (and my message will actually harm our relationship), then I may hold my tongue.

…but is that compatible with Christian living? Is the Christian concept of “speaking the truth in love” incompatible with holding one’s tongue to maintain relationships?

Is it better for a Christian to lose friends and destroy influence by continuing to speak an unwanted truth in love? Is that the only way, in a Christian/Thomistic approach, by which a friendship can be maintained (and anything else — anything more acquiescent or permissive, isn’t actually friendship at all?)

…I have of course heard some Christians say that this is just how things are. Christians will not be a majority, and they will not be popular, and that’s the point.

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25 Comments
  1. Agellius permalink

    Yes, it is compatible.

    Love, again, means wishing the other well. Browbeating someone with a message that they are not receptive to may do more harm than good. If you do something which you know will do more harm than good, then you have not acted in a loving manner.

    Love requires not merely that the Gospel be preached, but that it be preached in the manner that is most likely to do good. A “God hates fags” sign isn’t likely to be the best way. (Although in fairness, if we would avoid judgmentalism, we must admit that if the people carrying those signs honestly believe that it’s the best way to reach people, then they may be acting in a loving manner according to their lights. Personally I think they probably have psychological and emotional issues.)

    The virtue of prudence dictates that we evaluate the situation with each person, his circumstances, our relationship to him, his level of interest, intelligence, etc., to determine which is the best and most loving way to act. In other words, how may we do him the most good? There may be times when bluntly confronting someone with his sinfulness may be the best way, but I would be extremely hesitant to adopt that approach since it’s more likely to cause offense and resentment than a miraculous conversion.

  2. Agellius permalink

    A further thought: Even in the case of my kids, it’s not always best to confront their misbehavior bluntly and directly (let alone hostilely). Sometimes prudence dictates that you let things slide. And these are people whom it’s entirely right and proper that I correct and criticize when necessary. All the more reason why it can’t be a blanket policy, in the case of mature adults, to always confront people with their sins.

  3. Oh, how boring.

    Another homophobe, protesting how “loving” you are. Shut up already! Obsess about something else! Why are you so unnaturally interested in this topic? Read the theology: being gay is fine.

    • jennawoodnt permalink

      I am really confused. Are you calling Andrew a “homophobe”? I thought this blog post was a very thoughtful and honest perspective from a gay, believing man.

      • for full disclosure, I will say that I’m not a believer. Although maybe things may change one day

      • Yes.

        I had not known he is gay, but internalised homophobia afflicts many people brought up in religious environments.

  4. I’m wondering to whom or what you’re specifically responding, Clare…

    • I see in your article the basic falsehood that Christians disapprove of same sex relationships. This is true of some Christians, but by no means all. Your reference to “Christians” without qualification shows heterosexism- prejudice, if you don’t like allegations of phobia.

      Jesus said, remove the log from your own eye, then you might see to remove the speck from someone else’s. Telling a Christian that it is your opinion of Christianity that their relationship is wrong, merely shows your poor judgment.

      Anyone who is not gay who blogs like you is showing unhealthy obsession. Look to your own sins! ‘Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions’: Love means not judging- you do not know the person, you do not know how far they have come, you do not know their issues. Love means getting alongside your fellow human beings. Let us encourage one another. Futile speculation about how “loving” it is to repeatedly assert “gay is bad” gets in the way.

      • Sorry if I wrote anything that led you to interpret that I think that all Christians disapprove of same sex of relationships. I tried to clarify in the post that I was discussing *traditional* Christian sexual ethics, and speaking about about the perspectives of Thomistic or Catholic Christians. In addition, I even quoted a conservative LDS Christian who was replying to progressive LDS Christians…so I hope you’ll will see that I recognize that there are differences in thinking on the subject.

        So, given that I’m not making a universal claim, I don’t see how it’s a falsehood to claim that Christians disapprove of same-sex relationship. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s a position that is institutionally and personally held by many, if not most Christian denominations, so I think it’s fair to make that claim. Notwithstanding the existence of progressive Christian denominations (and I hope the best for these denominations and these Christians), it seems that more Christians are members of denominations following traditional Christian sexual ethics, and that progressive Christians face an uphill battle to maintain members (at least in the United States).

        …I’m a bit confused as to why you presume to judge anyone as having an “unhealthy obsession” for blogging about the topics about which they are interested. I am just really confused as to whether or not you recognize the irony of going to someone’s blog just to judge them for their choice of blogging topics and to tell them to look at their own sins. I don’t think you are aware of my background, and so you are making statements that don’t make a lot of sense.

        Anyway, I wanted to write about this topic because I think that there can be a productive conversation about what it means to “love”. I respect your own position that love is more about harmony — “getting alongside your fellow human beings”. But I can also respect the idea that this harmonious approach can also become complacent if we care more about preserving relationships rather than pushing one another to grow and change.

        So, I can see both sides. I personally also take a more harmonious approach, usually.

        • You say you “recognise that there are differences on the subject” yet you write “Christians”. If you mean conservative Christians, write conservative Christians. Your article reeks of the prurient obsession of such people. If you are talking of their bullying “love” which stultifies, rather than the Love of God which nourishes, strengthens, and helps us to grow, why not write of their “love” for adulterers?

          • Agellius permalink

            I think Andrew is being fairer and more tolerant of varying points of view than Clare is.

          • Indeed. But you also think “square is normal and cool is skewed”. You misunderstand fashion. And why should I be “tolerant” of a point of view which negates the beauty of God’s good creation of LGBT folk? Why should I be tolerant of a view which destroys LGBT lives, which scatters rather than gathering?

          • In the post, my first mention of the term “Christian” is prefixed with “traditional Christian,” so I think that it should be implied that my other uses of the term Christian refer to that.

            But I would probably make the stronger claim: by definition, if any use of the term “Christian” needs no prefix, then it probably should be traditional Christian.

            Put another way, traditional Christians are not the minority, so by default, when one speaks of Christians one should think about traditional Christians unless one states otherwise.

            If you are talking of their bullying “love” which stultifies, rather than the Love of God which nourishes, strengthens, and helps us to grow, why not write of their “love” for adulterers?

            If you have more time, please read my post: “All is Forgiven: Why Conservative Christians Get Away with Adultery”. I think the basic difference is that the high profile Christians caught in adultery are seen as repentant (even if they keep getting caught). In contrast, those in favor of same-sex relationships do not accept that their relationships are sin, and so they aren’t even trying to repent. That’s why there’s different treatment.

          • You know, maybe I barrelled in, a bit on the hostile side- but anyone talking of Aquinas at you, who has failed properly to challenge the homophobic “tradition” of their church, can do you no good.

            I will look at your post. Here is one for you: the comments of Francis Philip illustrate the blindness and lovelessness of a traditional Catholic beautifully. https://clareflourish.wordpress.com/2014/09/28/comfortable-words/

  5. Agellius permalink

    You sound very much like a “God hates fags” Baptist in reverse. Such a person might ask “why should I be tolerant of a view which results in people going to hell?”

  6. Agellius permalink

    “the comments of Francis Philip illustrate the blindness and lovelessness of a traditional Catholic beautifully”

    And since traditional Catholics are all the same, that settles that.

    • If you imagine you are different, please show how.

  7. Agellius permalink

    ‘I point to Scottish cardinal Keith O’Brien, who found his serial abuse of priests in his charge more Repentable than having a committed faithful gay relationship would have been.’

    A committed faithful gay relationship is perfectly repentable, so long as one repents of it.

    • The exploitation was seen as a series of discrete acts, each absolved, individual lapses. You cannot repent of a relationship without breaking it up, which is the greater sin.

      So, Aggie, mi duck- what do you think? A career of abuse, or a faithful relationship: which is morally more to be condemned?

      • Agellius permalink

        ‘So, Aggie, mi duck- what do you think? A career of abuse, or a faithful relationship: which is morally more to be condemned?’

        Both are objectively mortal sins. The sin of sexually molesting a child is compounded by the powerlessness of the victim.

        • “Objectively”, he says. He has no eyes to see, or ears to hear. He has blocked them with his false belief in his “objectivity”.

  8. Agellius permalink

    “If you imagine you are different, please show how.”

    I see. Guilty by association, until proven innocent.

    • Oh, come now. You have blathered enough rubbish here to show your position. I judge you on your statements, not on any prejudice.

      • Agellius permalink

        And with that I give you the last word.

        • Ta, ducky. Kiss kiss.

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