Same Kind of Different

An inter-religious dialogue on sex, marriage, and homosexuality raised more questions that it answered.

At a May 19th Faiths in Coversation Dialogue, held at Synagogue Beth Torah, we hear that all three religious leaders agree on this point: The God who created humanity has also established and revealed a normative social order. Thus each religion looks to its scripture, its record of revelation, to know just what that social order is. And in each religion it has been traditionally assumed that this divinely revealed social order accepts legitimate sexual relationships as only between a man and a woman in marriage. Finally, all agree that God’s ordained social order does not include either physical, sexual relationships between persons of the same gender, or such relations between anyone outside of marriage.

For Imam Zia conforming to this normative social order is a way of pleasing God through obedience to God’s law, regardless of and even despite of one’s natural inclinations.

For Rabbi Schlesinger heterosexual marriage is a civilizing institution that overcomes the chaos of giving in to natural desires and behaviors. Desires may be natural, but behavior needs to be controlled.

Both agree that homosexual inclinations are similar to other sexual inclinations, all of which need equally to be restrained and channeled into God’s approved channels.

For Pastor Skinner appears to agree with Rabbi Schlesinger and Imam Zia regarding what God desires for human society. But he sought to highlight the disagreements within the Christian community about interpretation of scripture, while highlighting the mandate to act toward all persons in ways that are loving and preserve unity.

All three presenters condemned homophobia and violence against homosexuals. But while imam Zia simply said that Muslims disagree about the correct punishment for homosexual behavior, Rabbi Schlesinger asserted that Rabbinic Judaism has consistently moved away from mandated punishment for violation of God’s laws.

3. One can scarcely list all of the objections that might be made to these presentations. And in any case most of these arguments have been extensively reviewed in public discourse. I want to focus on the specifically religious dimension of the dialogue, and religious alternatives to the very similar viewpoints put forward by the three participants..

4. If you begin with the idea that there is a divinely revealed social order then two essential questions arise within each religion. These were noted by the participants.

a. Have we correctly interpreted God’s revelation so that we properly understand that social order? Within all three religions there are those who disagree about the nature of God’s revealed social order, including disagreements about whether God forbids physical sexual relations between persons of the same sex.

b. The second question is theological. Why, if God has mandated a particular social order, has God also created individual humans who cannot live fulfilled and happy lives within that order? Why has God created people who find emotional/sexual fulfillment only in same-sex relations? Or, a slightly different question, why has God created people whose physical gender does not match their sense of their sexual selves? In other words, why has God created homosexual and transsexual persons?

The answer to this question depends on just how closely each religion believes that God creates the sexual person. Here Muslims almost uniformly agree with Imam Zia that each person in all his or her particularities is created by God. Christians and Jews, from what I have heard in the dialogue, assign a greater freedom to both nature and human choice, although this is contested in both traditions.

In any case the three speakers agree that regardless of the source of an inclination toward homosexual relationships, each individual is bound to obey God’s law. And in each tradition there are others, not represented in the dialogue who protest that if the source of an inclination toward homosexual relationships comes from God, or arises in nature, then the source legitimates the inclination and acting upon it within the context of a committed sexual partnership. 

5. But beneath these questions about interpretation of scripture and the source of human sexuality there is a deeper question. Does God in fact establish a normative social order? Or is it the case that all social orders arise out of human adaptation to the larger environment, and thus can change as both environments change and as human self-understandings change?

We must note that belief that social orders are actually social conventions is not inconsistent with belief in God, nor even belief in revelation. But a belief that social orders can and should change does posit a different relationship of God with humans, and a different purpose to revelation. So it could be argued, and it has been argued recently within all three of these religious traditions, that God does not reveal a normative social order. Rather God reveals a set of normative principles by which humans may guide their work in forming a social order.

And this means that we are still discovering what is best in order that every individual human person flourish. So, for example, marriage between homosexual persons may not be strictly forbidden by God (contra Imam Zia’s view of Islam) and it may not be an accommodation to avoid a greater evil (contra Rabbi Schlesinger’s view) and it should not even be a contested matter (contra Pastor Skinner’s view). It is, rather, a positively good thing that not only allows many individuals to have fulfilling intimate relationships but contributes to the good of society overall.

On this basis there are Christians, Muslims, and Jews who argue that God desires fidelity and love in sexual relationships, and forbids exploitation. But that God doesn’t mandate that fidelity and love be only between persons of the opposite sex. Fidelity and love are the keys to a legitimate relationship, and they can be present in a same-sex marriage just as they can be absent in heterosexual marriage.

Going a step further, some in these religious traditions argue that God has really left humans neither clearly articulated principles nor defined social structure, but rather a set of narrated encounters from which humans are on their own to discover even the most basic principles of human relationships. And these principles do not include mandates about sexual relationships.

And of course there is the view that there is no God, and that all reference to God in ethical matters is essentially a power-play designed to trump rational thought and keep oppressive, exploitative religious hierarchies in power.

It may well be that the greatest challenge for the future is not the shared understanding of marriage and human sexuality within these three religions, but the emerging understandings of revelation and human nature that challenge all three traditions into reassessment of marriage, its place in society, and its meaning for human fulfillment.

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  • Y. A. Warren

    “It may well be that the greatest challenge for the future is not the shared understanding of marriage and human sexuality within these three religions, but the emerging understandings of revelation and human nature that challenge all three traditions into reassessment of marriage, its place in society, and its meaning for human fulfillment.”

    As my Yiddish friends say, “From your mouth to God’s ears.”

  • David Whitson

    “God’s law” – right.