A calmer critique of Wendell Berry on same-sex marriage
Supportive response to Wendell Berry's marriage statement

On the response to Wendell Berry's thoughts on same-sex marriage

The current dismay among religiously and socially conservative appreciators of Wendell Berry's work is understandable. Mr. Berry has spoken about his support for same-sex marriage.

Early in his remarks he seemed to anticipate the kind of storm he was likely to stir. And there has arisen some turbulence, which I won't replay here. But you can find links to some examples of it HERE.

My guess, and it is only a guess, is that Mr. Berry has come to accept that which most of his conservative readers cannot—that, as gay Catholic theologian James Alison puts it, homosexuality is simply (or not so) "a regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant" within the human species. In other words, homosexuality is as natural for some of us as heterosexuality is for most of us. This position, which appears to be more generally accepted by science, is far from being accepted in either the Catholic church or numerous conservative Protestant churches. In fact, it seems to be foundational for "the liberal position" so regularly condemned by the Right.

For my own sanity's sake, I try to get outside of left/right thinking as much as possible. Alison (openly an advocate for his side) offers some help … or, at least, something that helps me think through the problem.

Accepting or rejecting this anthropological understanding of homosexuality would seem to be fundamental to whatever position one takes on the matter. It's the crux of it. A traditional and conservative reading of Scripture possibly will not get one there on its own. Why not? Probably because the divinely inspired yet historically and culturally embedded authors of Scripture didn't have the wherewithal to study and test the facts so as to grow toward understanding the thing itself.

The naturalness of homosexuality is either true or it is not. Here is a key paragraph by Alison, whose point I find compelling:

In the last fifty years or so we have undergone a genuine human discovery of the sort that we, the human race, don’t make all that often. A genuine anthropological discovery: one that is not a matter of fashion, or wishful thinking; not the result of a decline in morals or a collapse of family values. We now know something objectively true about humans that we didn’t know before: that there is a regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, independent of culture, habitat, religion, education, or customs, which we currently call “being gay”. This minority variant is not, of course, lived in a way that is independent of culture, habitat, religion, education and customs. It is lived, as is every other human reality, in an entirely culture-laden way, which is one of the reasons why it has in the past been so easy to mistake it as merely a function of culture, psychology, religion or morality: something to get worked up about rather than something that is just there. (James Alison, "The Fulcrum of Discovery or: how the 'gay thing' is good news for the Catholic Church")

This matter is not something I care to argue about. It is certainly not anything about which I wish to judge or condemn other people. Perhaps the advocates of one side or the other are ignorant or deluded or self-serving, intent on foisting some evil bit of social engineering onto all of us or on casting us back to the Dark Ages. But I prefer to think not. In fact, I really don't think so.

Everyone has an agenda. We are all people with points of view and desires that have been informed by our upbringing, our culture and historical moment, and I hope, our own mature and thoughtful consideration—our own intelligence. I trust that Mr. Berry, as in all other issues to which he has given thought, has used that intelligence in coming to his understanding of this matter.

 

Comments

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Tom, why do you avoid the question of sin? Plenty of Christians opposed to homosexuality (if not first belittled and cornered by too much haughty sophistry) could agree that homosexuality is "a regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant" (at least as non-pathological as everything else characterizing fallen man.) What does that matter?

"We're losing the ability to speak clearly and in good faith and responsibly to each other. It's possible
to have a responsible disagreement but that means that both sides have to come into the clear and state their case, fully and in good faith." -Berry

Eric, I hope you can read this without hearing me as haughty or a sophist. I'm afraid I might sound like it. I sometimes do when I'm trying to unravel my thought. I'm sure I don't have Mr. Berry's gift for crystal clear writing, but I am trying to say clearly and in good faith what I think.

I hadn't realized that I was avoiding the question of sin. How could I? It lurks everywhere.

But is it the case that homosexuality can only be discussed in the context of its sinfulness? I imagine there are many who believe that, yes, homosexuality and sin are inseparable. But IF it is true (and I lean in this direction)* that "homosexuality is as natural for some of us as heterosexuality is for most of us" (quoting myself), then either orientation would be susceptible to its own unique forms of sin … as well as its own unique forms of grace. Simply put, gay people are no more or less sinful than straight people. The call is for both gay and straight to become the best divinely created human beings they can be, starting with what they were given.

I don't think those who are opposed to homosexual orientation and/or homosexual sexual activity or homosexual marriage DO accept it as non-pathological. It is extremely pathological in their view (if the terms "perversion" and "abomination" still mean what they have meant—"objective evil" is more nuanced in Catholic moral theology, but is popularly in the same ballpark). Maybe if, instead of "non-pathological," Alison had said "morally neutral," the point would come across more clearly.

In light of my own sin, and lacking the prophetic vision that Mr. Berry often rightly exercises, I have very little interest in pointing a finger at others. But Jesus would probably be okay with that.


(*I know that this leaning puts me on thin ice with some people. But that has always been a problem for me. And all the names people throw at me—"liberal" being the kindest—haven't helped me see the error of my ways.)

With all due respect for the care with which you're attempting to assess this question, I can't help but think you are at least unwittingly guilty of sophistry if you find Alison's claim so compelling. How exactly have (or could) the assertions he puts forward come to be known as objective truths about the human being? I think you tip your hand with the phrase about this position being "generally accepted by science." What in the world does that mean? Who is "science", and on what grounds does this fictional personage accept claims about erotic conditions of soul (or what Augustine would call the orders of our loves)? If this is shorthand for "the general view of the human being presupposed in the conceptual foundations of most scientific research into human psychology and physiology," then it is already built into those presuppositions that human beings are not ordered toward some good, but are rather systems of chemistry that just happen to work as they do. Thus moral neutrality about sexual orientation is built into the suppositions; but you can't prove or establish as knowledge something that is built into your presuppositions.

Thanks for your thoughts, Mark. And thanks for adding "unwittingly." I'm a famously sloppy thinker. I will try harder, but probably not in this space. I do appreciate your critique.

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