Honing Humanism: Evangelical and Humanist Views Different as Chalke and Cheese

A new entry in a series of articles exploring the Humanist worldview and tradition in an attempt to clarify what it is, how it is distinctive, and what value it has.

The recent revelation that Pastor Steve Chalke, a prominent evangelical minister in the UK, has embraced as legitimate monogomous same sex relationships, has incensed British Evangelicals into an uproar.

Chalke’s shift on this issue could be seen in terms of a shift toward a more Humanist ethic – it is certainly more humane, refusing to judge, as he now does, a subset of the population which is still oppressed  But look closely and it’s clear that Humanist views on ethics are still strikingly different.

There are two primary differences between even Chalke’s now more liberal Christian ethical outlook and a Humanist ethical outlook: first, Chalke is happy to promote blatant falsehoods in the service of his ethical ideal; and second, he still gives ethical primacy to an authoritative text (scripture) over human experience. Both these problems are evident in the following quote from Chalke’s announcement regarding his change of heart on this issue:

Promiscuity is always damaging and dehumanising. Casual and self-centred expressions of sexuality – homosexual or heterosexual – never reflect God’s faithfulness, grace and self-giving love. Only a permanent and stable relationship, in which respect and faithfulness are given and received, can offer the security in which well-being and love can thrive.

It is obviously not true that “promiscuity is always damaging and dehumanising”, nor that “only a permanent and stable relationship, in which respect and faithfulness are given and received, can offer the security in which well-being and love can thrive”. There are plenty of people in the world who are sexually promiscuous and deeply fulfilled personally, and who conduct their sexual relationships in an ethical way which neither dehumanizes nor damages any party involved. There are many, too, who find deep well-being and love in non-traditional relationships.

Chalke would know this if he were merely willing to speak with people about their sexual experience: he would find that while some have had bad experiences with promiscuity, others have not. But instead of seeking evidence to support his ethical judgment Chalke simply asserts what he believes to be true, based on the anti-sex and traditionalist views of his religious tradition. He does not seem open to the evidence in front of him, and this marks a difference to the Humanist outlook.

The second problem is deeper, and much more pernicious: Chalke’s ethical system (like most theistic ethical positions I’ve examined) is basically inverted, in that it places primary ethical authority in a text, tradition, or figure of leadership (God, in this case), rather than in human experience. Instead of looking to people and our affairs for ethical guidance he looks to God.

The quote illustrates this: Casual and self-centred expressions of sexuality – homosexual or heterosexual – never reflect God’s faithfulness, grace and self-giving love.” The necessary implication here is that how human beings conduct their romantic relationships should ideally be a reflection of some characteristics of God. And a further implication of that is that, when a person’s own genuine desires and the characteristics of God don’t match up, God should “win” the conflict and the person should be content with misery.

I would call this an essentially authoritarian ethical outlook: some authority other than human experience has been established which is to be the arbiter of ethical conduct, and against which there is essentially no appeal. Chalke’s move here – to accept a subset of gay relationships – is not a fundamental shift in his ethical outlook (thought it may seem cataclysmic to his critics) but merely a reinterpretation of the same text he has always seen as ethically authoritative.

The discussion of Chalke’s revelation on the Unbelievable? radio show last week demonstrates this very clearly: the discussants (Chalke and opposing theologians who take a different view on homosexuality) were not really discussing what is best for gay people in this life – that seemed an almost entirely irrelevant consideration to them. Rather, they were discussing differing interpretations of the Bible. The idea that Chalke might question whether we should be making ethical decisions of the basis of what he interprets to be “God’s Best” never seemed to cross his mind. For him, “God’s best” comes before “Humankind’s Best” and is the yardstick of ethical judgment.

This is extremely dangerous. In any authoritarian ethical system people’s experience – their desires, their feelings, their autonomy, their rights – is placed lower on the list of considerations than whatever is considered to be authoritative. As I’ve written before, this reduces the process of ethical deliberation essentially to a form of literary criticism: a deadly form, since people’s lives and happiness hangs in the balance.

Humanists say no to this widespread way of thinking. We take the view that ethical decisions must be made always with their effects on people, in this life, at the top of our list of priorities (we might call this an “Experiential ethics”). Chalke, in taking a step toward acceptance, has done a good thing, and is to be commended for it. But his ethical outlook is still far from Humanist: while he grants irrelevant sources ethical authority his ethics is still authoritarian.

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