Postcard to Rome: gay people can flourish too

The Catholic church has a new pope! Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio this week became Pope Francis I, the first non-European pope. The first BRIC pope. He sounds like a man of humility and asceticism, who travels on budget airlines - Lord knows that is a trial of the flesh. While a friend to the poor, Pope Francis is not a liberal when it comes to homosexuality or gay marriages, despite coming from Argentina where same-sex marriages are legal. He has written that the moves to legalise gay marriage are ‘a machination of the Father of Lies’. OK then!

Here in the Church of England, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, faces a much harder decision on this issue. Unlike in the Catholic Church, there is a real division in the Anglican church over homosexuality and gay marriage, and there are some high profile gay priests - one of whom has been tipped to take over from Welby as the Bishop of Durham.

The C of E is in a very difficult position because the Anglican community is, by numbers at least, overwhelmingly African. There are roughly 13 million Anglicans in the UK, and around 38 million in Africa, with 17 million in Nigeria alone.

The liberal wing of the C of E is quite strong in the UK, and is vocal in the British media through spokespeople like Giles Fraser or Reverend Coles, who is a presenter of Radio 4’s Saturday Live. In Africa, by contrast, there is barely any institutional demand for gay marriage or gay priests within the Anglican church. African Anglican bishops would be horrified by the prospect - although Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of the Anglican Church of South Africa, is a rare exception.

As one priest put it to me this week: “Justin is caught between two lorries speeding towards him: British liberal Anglicans, and conservative African Anglicans. And whichever way he moves on the issue, he will get hit.”

There are pragmatic, political considerations on the matter. In Nigeria, for example, where the Islamic and Christian churches are in a tussle for spiritual power, Muslim leaders are much more hard-line on the issue, and use Christians’ apparent softness on the topic (there is now an underground ‘Rainbow church’ for gay Nigerians) as ammunition against them. If Welby came out in support of gay marriage and sexually active gay priests, would the Nigerian church break away, immediately reducing the Anglican church’s congregation by almost 50%?

What's the right thing to do?

There are moral questions too. Never mind the questions of political expediency, what is the right thing to do? Both Christians and Socratics try to do what is good, but for Christians, the will of God as expressed in the Bible is an important part of that process. It may be uncomfortable and it may go against popular opinion (or the 'pattern of the world'), but Christians strive to submit their own will both to the will of God as expressed in the Bible, and to the will of the Church. Socratics by contrast don’t have to submit to anyone or anything besides our own reason, which is lovely, but also means we don’t really have much genuine community.

Anyway, the Bible is not the most rainbow-tinted text. The Old Testament God was no friend of the Sodomites, who surrounded Lot’s house and demanded Lot allow them to ‘know’ the two angels who were visiting him, in the only known instance of attempted angel-rape. Nothing annoys God like angel-human sex - he almost wiped out the entire human race when the sons of God bred with the daughters of men in Genesis 6. And, sure enough, He wiped out the city of Sodom when they tried to rape the angels.

This has been taken as a sign that homosexuals are Sodomites and therefore evil, and any culture that allows homosexuality will incur God’s wrath. But maybe the sin of Sodom was angel-rape, which for various reasons is obviously a bad idea. Or maybe the unnaturalness of their act was rape of any kind? After all, this was clearly a very bad way to treat guests, whoever they were. Perhaps the Sodomites got what was coming to them, but not because they were into anal sex - because they were rapists. (I still think it's unlikely the entire city was entirely made up of evil rapists - it would make city-living impossible, in a Hobbesian sense).

In the New Testament, however, the matter seems clearer. In the first verses of his Epistle to the Romans, St Paul condemns those who

exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures...For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

This is a pretty weird passage. St Paul suggests homosexual desires are ‘unnatural’, but they’re not exactly a crime. They’re a punishment for worshipping animal-gods! This seems to be drawing on a calumny that was frequently hurled at early Christians by Romans - that they worship a donkey-God and have orgies. St Paul is perhaps throwing that accusation back at the world...I don't know.

Anyway, if you’re a serious Christian and you think the word of St Paul is the word of God, then this is a difficult passage to wrestle with. I personally think St Paul was a writer of genius, an astounding and inspired writer. The rest of that letter is beautiful. But Socratic as I am, I don’t agree with everything he says, just like I don’t agree with everything Plato or Aristotle say. Paul had a particular personality, which was one of complete celibacy and suspicion of the body, and he says he wishes everyone could be like him (which would rapidly wipe out the human race), but if they can’t then they should marry to prevent fornication. His words have been taken to mean no sex before marriage and (in the Catholic church) no sex for priests.

I personally think St Paul is too Stoic, that he demands far too much of us. I think it is asking too much to expect people not to have sex before marriage (boys, anyway), and dangerous to expect priests never to have sex. His teachings go against nature, and nature will always win. There might be some strong people capable of celibacy, but for most people, sexual urges will come out, despite all the Church’s fine words. If they are not allowed natural expression, they will come out in twisted and unnatural forms, which is what has happened in the Catholic Church’s systematic child abuse (for how many centuries?)

The same thing used to happen in single-sex English boarding schools, by the way. There was no way for natural adolescent sexual urges to come out, so older boys systematically raped younger boys (and their parents paid to send their children to these rape camps!) By the time I went to boarding school, thank God the culture had improved, arguably because girls were more proximate and porn was more available.

Homosexual and flourishing

I also think homosexuality naturally occurs in human nature, at all times and in all cultures. I don’t think it’s a deviancy. On the contrary, some of the greatest humans who ever lived have been homosexual or bisexual, from Plato to Shakespeare. You can be gay and flourish. You can be gay and love God - I have gay friends who do, passionately. And the fact that people have been gay even in cultures which are very homophobic, like many African societies today, is proof of the natural occurrence of these passions. As Desmond Tutu put it: ‘it is so improbable that any sane, normal person would deliberately choose a lifestyle exposing him or her to so much vilification, opprobrium and physical abuse, even death.’

I don’t think you can entirely extirpate natural erotic passions, as the Stoics believed and as St Paul seems to believe - at least, not without doing violence to yourself, like Origen and Anselm cutting off their balls. Instead, as Plato and Aristotle argued, we should guide our passions from their savage state into their higher, civilised state. Eros, the god of passion, can be deeply socially destabilizing, but we can civilize him and guide him into pro-social institutions. That is one practical argument for gay or heterosexual marriage: that it knits people together and is good for community. In this sense, I am resolutely bourgeois about gay marriage.

The other, even better, argument is not about civility, but about love. Plato believed that our sexual desire, in its highest state, points us towards God. Our earthly loves (for men or women) soften our hearts and prepare us for the deeper experience of God’s love. This is similar to the mystery of love in the New Testament - the Holy Spirit that fills our hearts. Do we really think that the Holy Spirit does not also fill the hearts of gay people...that only straight people receive it? It is more oceanic than that. It flows over boundaries. This, in fact, seems to me what the rest of St Paul's Epistle to the Romans is about - God's love isn't just for the Jews but for everyone. 'There is no partiality with God'.

I read today of a Republican senator, Rob Portman, who initially opposed gay marriage, and who changed his position when his 21-year-old son Will told him he was gay. He said: ‘It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that's of a Dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have - to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years’.  That, to me, is a loving father. I'd be surprised if a Republican was capable of greater paternal love than God.

The Anglican church faces a very difficult and painful decision. But if the decision is between politics and love for the marginalised and oppressed, then I think the answer is clearer, particularly when considering the persecution that gay Africans suffer. As Desmond Tutu said: ‘The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those who vilify and persecute an already oppressed minority.’ That's also the opinion of this unchurched north London metrosexual liberal, for what it’s worth.


In other news:

On this day in 1884, Tolstoy imagined a Calendar of Wisdom, with entries from Aurelius, Epictetus and the Buddha. The first New Age pick-and-mixer!

Next week sees the release of David Esterly's philosophical reflection on his vocation as a woodcarver and his love for the Baroque work of Grinling Gibbons. It's called The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. He writes: 'A carver begins as a god and ends as a slave'. Here's a review from the Boston Globe, comparing the work to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Cardiff Uni has released a pamphlet of six essays about evil and Nietzsche, for A-level philosophy students.

The British Psychology Society has released a monograph on the history of psychology in British education, going back to 1913.

Gallup released an interesting survey on which jobs had the highest well-being (physicians and teachers scored well), finding correlations with the extent to which workers feel they use their strengths at work, and whether they feel their boss is more like a partner.

Interesting and to my mind legitimately scathing take on Frank Furedi and his Institute for Ideas by the Guardian.

Two upcoming events in London - a lecture next Wednesday by Steven Pinker, and Andrew Stead is organising a 'Five Daily Slices' event on well-being with five experts on Sunday April 7 (neither of these have paid me to promote this by the way, I'm just giving you a heads-up). Also, there's a job going at Nina Grunfeld's Life Clubs in sales, get in touch with her if you're interested.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has started a sort of 'consciousness-raising circles' movement for modern women with her 'Lean In' circles. More about that here.

Comedian Stewart Lee had an interesting piece bewailing the disappearance of intellectuals from TV.  He exaggerates how great it was in the past - hardly anyone watched the BBC's Third Programme in the 50s - and it's not that bad now, particularly on radio. I was at a great AHRC / Radio 3 workshop on media engagement for humanities academics yesterday, and was very impressed firstly with the calibre of the academics and secondly with how keen Radio 3's Nightwaves is to engage with academics.

Talking of publicly engaging academics, here is Thomas Dixon, head of the Centre for History of the Emotions, talking about anger in Metro newspaper.

That's all for this week, see you next week. Thanks to everyone for supporting my book and buying it for their friends!