That Pesky Method Problem

In my most recent post, I tried to show why I and some other United Methodists don’t find the so-called local option on same sex marriage helpful.  I said I would try a “method” question in a subsequent post, and this is it.

I recently read a blog by a UM scholar that stated quite clearly a common explanation for why some believe the Bible has little direct guidance for our deliberations on same sex marriage.  It runs like this: “The writers in Bible times did not have the concept of sexual orientation.  We now understand sexual orientation in a way that the ancients did not.”  This term, “sexual orientation,” becomes a major starting point for arguing in support of same sex marriage.  And it seems to make perfect sense.  If the Bible does not say anything about sexual orientation and if sexual orientation is a fact that we can now recognize as a normal part of human experience, then we should not force the Bible to speak where it doesn’t.

In methodological terms, then, we have some people who privilege biblical language and some people who privilege modern concepts of sexual orientation and gender.  That is, for some like the scholar to whom I referred, modern sources in psychology, sociology, etc., give us solid information that require our re-thinking the traditional view.  Sources outside the Bible help us understand the Bible more adequately.

Everyone who seeks to do serious reflection on a topic like marriage needs to recognize their method.  It’s not as much fun to do this kind of work, but it is absolutely necessary.  More transparency here on every side of the issue would help us all understand each other better and hopefully lower the temptation to name-calling.

So, to my methodological concern with the term “sexual orientation” that plays such a large role in the current debate.  I don’t have a lot of confidence in the term and it behooves me to show why.  Again, I admit (1) this is a very complex matter and (2) I don’t have any special expertise.  I’m a pastor in an academic setting, trying to think clearly and compassionately in order to act as faithfully as possible as I walk with people through their life stages and challenges.

I recently read an an article in the University of Cincinnati Law Review titled, “Is Polyamory a Sexual Orientation?” written by Ann Tweedy (2011).  She argues that, from the standpoint of law, the popular understanding of sexual orientation is too limited to relations between gay and lesbian couples and conceptually too vague for the legal questions before us.  In the advocacy (and polemics) to make same sex marriage the law of the land (which Tweedy supports), she says that the concept of sexual orientation is too narrowly understood and applied.  It remains too beholden to the continuing power of the predominant heteronormative narrative.  That narrative is tied closely to lifelong monogamy.  So, gay or lesbian monogamous marriages still serve a heteronormative framework that does not offer justice to a wide enough circle of persons, namely bi- or pansexual folk or anyone else whose self-understanding tends them in the direction of polyamorous relationships.

In short, Tweedy believes that, at least from the standpoint of the law, polyamory is a sexual orientation.  In a 50 plus page argument, she goes into great detail to show how fluid and ill-defined the term “sexual orientation”is.  One example and it is Tweedy’s: Understanding that no one is sexually attracted to everyone, what if someone is attracted to tall blonde women?  Short, dark haired women just don’t turn you on.  When you see them, you barely notice.  But when you see a tall blonde?  Is that set of attractions part of one’s orientation?  It is stable and consistent over time.  Of course, no one is prepared to read legal rights into such a narrow description, but it does serve to show Tweedy’s point that the current popular description is too amorphous.

Alongside Tweedy’s conceptual argument stands empirical evidence that sexual orientation is more fluid – at least for some people – than suggested by the “fixed and stable” descriptions currently in vogue.  Consider, for another example, this definition from the American Psychological Association web site:

Sexual orientation refers to the sex of those to whom one is sexually and romantically attracted. Categories of sexual orientation typically have included attraction to members of one’s own sex (gay men or lesbians), attraction to members of the other sex (heterosexuals), and attraction to members of both sexes (bisexuals). While these categories continue to be widely used, research has suggested that sexual orientation does not always appear in such definable categories and instead occurs on a continuum (e.g., Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953; Klein, 1993; Klein, Sepekoff, & Wolff, 1985; Shiveley & DeCecco, 1977) In addition, some research indicates that sexual orientation is fluid for some people; this may be especially true for women (e.g., Diamond, 2007; Golden, 1987; Peplau & Garnets, 2000).

I draw two conclusions, then, from these sources.  First, if we’re going to develop a consistent sexual ethic in the church (assuming that we should), we should understand the risks of privileging terms like “sexual orientation.”  It apparently is not a firm category.  Second, because of how the concept of “sexual orientation” is supported, I am convinced that the same logic equally supports polyamorous arrangements.  As I mentioned in the previous post, the more daring among progressive folk are already making this point.  I respect them for their candor.

If we’re going to do same sex weddings, we need to be ready to do polyamorous blessings.  In other words, the whole concept of “marriage” needs to drop the assumption of only two people and we need also to recognize that “until we are parted by death” has to go as well.

I hope I have shown that those of us who continue to hesitate about the church’s affirming same sex marriage do so from serious methodological concerns.  The conceptual grounds for supporting same sex marriage don’t seem so firm to us.  We’re very willing to keep talking.  And listening.

 

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. In my experience and observations of the world, I and others have a wide range of “attractions” (not just “sexual”). These attractions shape our actions and self-perceptions. My understanding of Christian ethics (and what I teach, whether in my churches or in the classroom), is that it it possible for my attractions (can I use another word, “desires,” as a synonym?) to be attached to the wrong things or to be expressed wrongly. I have an orientation, an attraction, a set of desires, to sweet things. I like cakes, cookies, pies, and ice cream. I go so far as being a “poly-sweetist,” enjoying them in combination with each other. I have been taught that if I act on my desires in this area I will suffer unfavorable consequences.

    Or maybe not. Maybe it’s ok to desire pie, as long as I limit myself to one piece per month. My desire, my “sweetist orientation” is ok. I can even act on my orientation. But are all actions based on this desire equally good? Can I express my desire for pie wrongly? I can imagine ways in which my desire could go wrong.

    It also seems to me that for the “orientation defense” to work, one has to have previously jettisoned the doctrine of original sin. That doctrine, on my reading, supports my previous point: It is possible that some of the desires that characterize me, attractions and orientations that shape my identity and my actions are misguided or wrong, not what God intended in the creation of humanity. I might still be accounted a sinner, but my nature, created by God as it is, is basically good, so anything that is part of my nature must therefore be good also. If we have a doctrine of original sin, a doctrine Wesley retained in his teaching, then it is possible that what I experience as “my nature” can be other than God’s original intent and can lead me astray. To put it another way, I have not seen any account of a scientific approach, whether through orientation theory or some other means, that even strikes me as relevant, if I take original sin as a given.

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