Self-Righteous Secularism at Sheffield … with a Smile

Self-Righteous Secularism at Sheffield … with a Smile April 21, 2012

I consider Dr. James Crossley a friend and colleague. Together we co-authored I think a rather exciting book How Did Christianity Begin? which addresses critical questions about the emergence of Christianity from two very different perspectives. I have often enjoyed a drink with James, he is always brutally honest, quick with a joke, and occasionally writes some good stuff too.

I was all the more disappointed then to read Crossley’s most recent blog post at Sheffield Biblical Studies on  Homophobia with a Cuddle! Or, a Polemic against Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing. In this post, Crossley provides a sarcastic laden attack on the presence of Christian scholars in the academy and he wonders why their traditionalist or conservative views on human sexuality are found in the mainstream. He calls such views  “homophobic” and “bigoted.” Crossley provocatively asks: “There is a simple issue here: why are mainstream scholarly views, which might be deemed bigoted views, mainstream?.” The deplorable individuals he has in mind are Michael Bird, N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Ben Withertington, and Robert Gagnon. At the end of his post, he concludes: “This isn’t about exegesis. The biblical texts may very well be what we’d call homophobic. The issue here is that homophobia is mainstream in academic biblical studies and the hate towards ‘practising’ behaviour … is patched over with fluffiness, love and academic credibility.” Dem dere be fightin words!

Deviant Labeling and Difference

My first query pertains to what is meant by “homophobic”? Now Crossley takes it as axiomatic, though without explaining precisely why, that these Christian scholars (myself included) are homophobic because they think that their “exegesis” of biblical texts “applies to contemporary life.” Now I had always thought that homophobic (= gay-hating) behaviour would be something like setting up a website called”Godhatesfags.com” or else standing outside a gay bar with a cricket bat ready to bludgeon the first man in leather jeans who walks out of it. For Crossley, however, homophobia is exceedingly broad. It appears to be specified in terms of a refusal to accept the normalcy and goodness of homoerotic acts. In fact, I get the impression from Crossley that advocacy of a Christian sexual ethic of celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage is a de jure homophobic position.

Crossley uses the term “homophobic” in a circumstantial ad hominem argument by appealing to the specific circumstances that his readers would be horrified at homophobia in the corridors of university education. The center  of gravity in his argument (or rant) is to pin the label on certain people, not to prove that these persons have engaged in activities that are legally and recognizably homophobic – he just assumes that. If you can successfully label someone as belonging to a deviant ideology, then you can more easily persuade others to take punitive actions against the persons in question.

To sum up, I think Crossley is engaging in vitriolic name-calling against people who do not share his own views of human sexuality (however shared they might be) . Rhetoric might be persuasive to some, but it is not reason.

Equality and the Christian Ethic

Equity and diversity legislation in the UK is pretty simple, thankfully based on common law, and stands in a trajectory going all the way back to the Magna Carta. The 2010 Equality Act “sets out the different ways in which it is unlawful to treat someone, such as direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, victimisation and failing to make a reasonable adjustment for a disabled person.” The Equality Charter in my old UK institution, the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), was very simple follow.

Equity laws are no problem for a Christian. They are based on a very simple principle of Christian ethics: treat others the way you would like to be treated. I have in my times in the Australian Army and working for UHI signed on without any conflict of conscience to work place equity standards in the UK and Australia. It does not mean that I agree or affirm all of the behaviours and beliefs of my colleagues and students, it means that I will treat everyone fairly, equally, and with respect.

However, if we follow Crossley’s line, then Christian academics with traditional views on sexuality are clearly in violation of work place equity laws. I do not see how on his view you can teach (much less preach) Rom 1:26-27 without violating the Equality Act. So there are serious consequences riding on Crossley’s remarks for the legal position of Christians in UK universities.

Pluralism and Diversity for All … For All Those Who Agree with Me

Now many people proscribe and censure certain sexual behaviours. Many of us think that adultery is wrong, others think that polyamory and polygamy are not healthy for personal relationships or for families. Are such persons bigoted? Are opponents of adultery hateful because that they condemn something that consenting adults do in their own privacy? Surely there are many sexual ethics and codes in a pluralistic society, so why does a pro- or gay-affirming one have to be standard which, if not met, justifies deviant  labeling against dissenters? Despite all the virtues of diversity and inclusivity that we find lauded in an aggressive secularism, proponents are resolutely dogmatic and fiercely exclusive towards any sexual ethic other than their own. In other words, in his effort to expose the bigotry of one ideology of sex, Crossley surreptitiously legitimates and authorizes his own ideology of sex as authoritative for all. Alas Crossley just got swiped by Foucault’s boomerang!

Crossley is also strangely fixated on Christians here. Perhaps they constitute the homophobia that he has the most time for. But I have to wonder whether Crossley would have written the same remarks about, say, a Muslim lecturer in a Religious Studies Department, or a Jewish lecturer in a Psychology Department, who also believed that homosexuality was not God’s plan for humanity. The logic of his position is that he would seemingly be willing to, but to do so would lacerate the virtue of being genuinely pluralistic which is secular orthodoxy. Such is the paradox of secular fundamentalism: lambast the Christian homophobes, but give special consideration to Muslims and Jews.

Crossley’s Crux

Crossley’s post was not a descriptive and neutral account of the presence of one particular ideological view of sexuality in the academy. It was a value-laden critique., i.e., Crossley regards these scholars as hateful towards homosexuals. Crossley’s “outing” of scholars in the academy for having traditionalist or conservative views on sexuality is meant to elicit shock in his (implied) readers who would be mortified at the presence of such bigoted and homophobic individuals in accredited and government funded universities. To this end, he situates himself like a type of Julian Assange who has exposed the presence of so-called bigotry in the tertiary education sector. Yet Crossley, the brave and bold truth teller, might not be all that he appears. I fear that Crossley has discovered his “inner Dawkins” and has positioned himself more as a Chairman Mao in setting up the platform for a purge of such scholars from university departments. Now Crossley explicitly says that he is all for academic and public freedom (He writes, “I’m not saying anyone should have their voice, writing or anything banned.”). I wish I could believe him, but punitive action against such scholars is the logical and necessary consequence of his position, at least in legal terms. If bigotry and homophobia are inconsistent with British (and American) work-place equity laws, and they are, then it stands to reason that the forementioned scholars should be either sacked, forced to recant their views, or at least show cause as to why they should retain their positions in public employ. Crossley’s apparent whistle-blowing on the presence of conservative Christians in the academy, whether he himself believes it or not, makes way for and justifies their removal. I know that, you know that, I assume Crossley knows that. Despite his caveats to the contrary, I sadly fear that that is where he wishes to go.

I wish I could have had a drink with James before he wrote that one. Alas!

In my next post I shall give some “Pastoral Reflections on Homophobia”.

 

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  • Well written Mike – the slipperiness of language used in this conversation is one of the most unhelpful features of it becoming a non-conversation!

  • James Crossley

    I’m going to try and cut through the highly dubious rhetorical moves here and try to stick to what the argument is actually about…

    Sarcastic? Certainly! Criticism of mainstream views? Certainly! Deplorable individuals? Those I know, certainly not. I welcome you and I am attacking the sin not the sinner, or the rhetoric not the person.

    You say that you had ‘always thought that homophobic (= gay-hating) behaviour would be something like setting up a website called”Godhatesfags.com” or else standing outside a gay bar with a cricket bat ready to bludgeon the first man in leather jeans who walks out of it. For Crossley, however, homophobia is exceedingly broad. It appears to be specified in terms of a refusal to accept the normalcy and goodness of homoerotic acts.’
    Sort of yes. But you also miss the point. Normalcy, well only in the sense that I would be completely indifferent to such things and wish others were even if I know they aren’t. But hey, that’s the price you pay for free speech. But it is your definition of a view of homophobic in the simple violent sense that I have some issue with. Once that is the definition then views like this from Robert Gagnon are (somehow) not homophobic:
    You do yourself a disservice by relating to other males as though you were their sexual complement. The fact that you had a long-lasting relationship is like congratulating an incestuous union between consenting adults for lasting 30 years. It’s not a triumph but a long-lasting enterprise of sin and mutual dishonor…But when you introduce sex into the equation then you dishonor yourself by acting as if you are a half male. (Robert Gagnon)
    Now, I wish he wouldn’t argue such things but that’s too bad. But to try to say that this is a positive…well, I guess within the framework of a certain form of Christianity I’m sure it is and it is certainly better than being beaten with a cricket bat but it is the kind of distinction that I find a wee bit dubious if the language used above from Gagnon is somehow not perceived to be, I dunno, homophobic. Do you not see anything problematic in Gagnon’s language and argument?

    You said: I get the impression from Crossley that advocacy of a Christian sexual ethic of celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage is a de jure homophobic position
    No. Taken alone, I am entirely indifferent about both.

    You said: Crossley uses the term “homophobic” in a circumstantial ad hominem argument by appealing to the specific circumstances that his readers would be horrified at homophobia in the corridors of university education. The center of gravity in his argument (or rant) is to pin the label on certain people, not to prove that these persons have engaged in activities that are legally and recognizably homophobic
    No, not quite. I think that if (for instance) you think and label the way Gagnon does it could reasonably be perceived as homophobic language in the outside world. Not that I agree with the principle of firing for beliefs or anything like that etc but it is true that people would be in hot water for saying things like homoerotic ‘practice’ is the equivalent of incest and that you are half male. But one of the questions for me is: why is this mainstream in biblical studies? I know the answer is obvious but still.

    And I get the constructed nature of language, law and all that (I know that I’m using a constructed definition, albeit one which illustrates the problems defending some unfortunate views on homosexual ‘practice’) but I also get the constructed an ideological nature of an argument which tries to claim that labelling ‘practising’ homosexuality/homosexuals as the equivalent of incest, being a half male or simply wrong as something positive and loving.

    And the legal issue is a red herring which again misses the point. To say following ‘my line’ means that ‘Christian academics with traditional views on sexuality are clearly in violation of work place equity laws’ is wrong. I deliberately said that no view should be excluded and I have some serious problems with imposing liberal views in law (without a very serious and wide ranging/ongoing discussion…another time). I have an anarchistic view of these things and I also have a strong distrust of much, or at least some, of the contemporary rhetoric of tolerance and equality (much of it a double edged sword). In fact, I think your argument (like others) does just that: you’re not tolerant, we are into equality, therefore when we label homosexual ‘practice’ in terms of incest, half male, wrong etc we are into equality! There’s a fair bit of work on this use of ‘tolerance’ and more will be forthcoming, fear not!

    You said: But I have to wonder whether Crossley would have written the same remarks about, say, a Muslim lecturer in a Religious Studies Department, or a Jewish lecturer in a Psychology Department, who also believed that homosexuality was not God’s plan for humanity. Such is the paradox of secular fundamentalism: lambast the Christian homophobes, but give special consideration to Muslims and Jews.
    Well, I they were high profile and senior academic in the discipline and so on, why not? And add no religious persuasion to that too. If it were the odd person with no real profile or influence, I would pass it by I suspect but that’s not the case in this instance (take this as a compliment if you like) as we are dealing with high profile and senior (and, yes, Christian) academics writing about the Bible. And, for the record, I have written at least as, if not more, polemically about ‘secular fundamentalism’ or New Atheism because I have massive problems with that too. And there’s more to come (btw, certain evangelicals have a lot more in common with certain atheists than you might think…)

    On the inner Dawkins and Mao stuff, not to mention the implied liberalism throughout, you’ve got my ideological position entirely wrong, as well as the logical consequences of my position, partly because you equate my position with one trying to uphold legal requirements. If you read my more overtly political stuff, and not too much between the lines here, my position on the basic level involves critiquing the more powerful end of scholarship whatever religious, non-religious or ideological persuasion that might be. That’s largely liberal or centrist positions these days but there are obviously strong Christian positions involved in the discipline too. But New Atheism, Maoism, aggressive secularism and so on, really isn’t the ideological logic running through my arguments, publically or privately. I would tell you explicitly but I’m more inclined to let you work it out because you keep trying (and failing!) and because it is more fun (a very crude – not in the rude sense – clue: who’s my favourite academic outside biblical studies…?)

    And I would always have a drink but you will insist on living miles and miles away.

    • Okay, “Chairman Mao and a Homophobe walk into a bar … turns out it was Crossley and Bird!”

      James, here’s my conversational retort:

      1. Yes, I know you were trying to hate the sin and love the sinner, but when Jesus did it, he didn’t use smug sarcasm. Yes, I know that your thing is to do a deconstruction of ideologies in biblical scholarship – all power to you-, but your post wasn’t a descriptive unmasking of ideological currents in the academy, it was pitched pejoratively (at the risk of flattering myself, I guess I’ll end up in your next blood book too now).

      2. Every time you say the word “homophobia” I am reminded of the movie the Princess Bride, when Indigo says to Vinzinni: “You keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.” Homophobia, in my reckoning, pertains to inciting hatred against people or committing violence. I don’t think I’ve ever done/said anything like that. Gagnon and co., can fend for themselves, but you’ve got me now in the same flipping category as Fred Phelps. So this bird’s feathers feel a bit ruffled. Simply because I censure or refuse to condone some sexual practices does not make be bigoted or hateful towards the people who practice them. Many people disapprove, dislike, and are mortified by adultery, however, who would call them adulterophobic? To deconstruct in reverse, as you recognize, the criticism you make implies the authorizing of a particular narrative and paradigm about sexuality, policy, and free speech in which claims to homophobia invoke disgust at such persons.

      3. I think the legal stuff is not a red herring at all. In fact, some gay activist could use your post as evidence to make a formal complaint at certain persons in British Unis. The police would then use your blog post as part of a brief of evidence and pass it onto prosecutors. Obviously not your intent, but by making the claim of homophobia in the academy on an (un)official(?) Sheffield website, and by naming them, it does make it possible, I’m assuming you knew this. Your own live-and-let-die attitude won’t matter then, law is law.

      4. On Dawkins and Mao. Of course it was rhetoric. Yes, I know you’re not a New Atheist nor a secular fundamentalist. But Dawkins calls Christians homophobes, you called some Christians homophobes, ergo, analogy stands. On Chairman Mao, well, you are a bit of a leftie, and I do think the logic of your argument lends itself to a purge of formentioned homophobes from institutions.

      Well, I’ll gladly have a drink with you next time I’m in the UK, assuming I’m not arrested at Heathrow for hate-crimes, nor lynched by Peter Thatcher and his band of merry men.

      • Hi Michael,

        When you say that “Homophobia, in my reckoning, pertains to inciting hatred against people or committing violence,” that’s simply not necessarily true. That’s like saying the only kind of racism or sexism involves encouraging hard-line hatred/violence against blacks and women.

        But even if you’re not a nasty or aggressive homophobe, I’m still fond of you. 🙂

      • Michael, I think we arrive at the crux when we see that your definition of homophobia is gravely flawed.

        Given that you introduced the legal context, it’s worth noting two things. First, that homophobia is not a crime. And second, that the instances that you use to unpack your definition are (I am here drawing on the UK legal context, but as far as I understand it the law in the US follows the same pattern). Therefore, to some extent you yourself demonstrate your definition to be poorly founded.

        While we all spend time instructing students regarding the limits of Wikipedia, I am passionate that we should also be extolling its many virtues – one of which is providing useful definitions of evolving socio-cultural terminology. Here is how the entry for ‘homophobia’ begins:

        “Homophobia is a range of negative attitudes and feelings towards homosexuality or people who are identified as or perceived as being homosexual. Definitions refer variably to antipathy, contempt, prejudice, aversion, and irrational fear.”

        I would suggest to you that if you wish to define the term in any more narrow a sense than this then you would need to provide evidence in support of that decision. Otherwise, of course, your point might be dismissed as ‘rhetoric’ as opposed to ‘reason’ (assuming that it’s still 1684).

      • Also, who the hell is Peter Thatcher?

  • James Crossley

    Some of the quotations should’ve come out in italics but (hopefully!) what’s not mine should be clear enough…

  • Stephen Clark

    I am genuflecting before my altar of Mark Steyn as I read this! Free speech Hate speech.

  • James C

    Mike, I’m struggling with your site so this might appear multiple times…

    1. ‘but your post wasn’t a descriptive unmasking of ideological currents in the academy, it was pitched pejoratively’. It was both. There is a clear trend of what might conventionally be called ‘homophobic’ language in biblical scholarship and it was being used by certain big named scholars. I have no problem pitching it pejoratively or at individuals. (Incidentally, the next book has no discussion of homophobia).
    2. ‘Simply because I censure or refuse to condone some sexual practices does not make be bigoted or hateful towards the people who practice them.’ When we get the language repeatedly used (by high profile scholars), it would meet the general understanding of the term ‘homophobia’ and saying you do it gently doesn’t escape that. The definition maybe problematic but it is a commonly held definition so I’m curious to know if you are exempt and why. As for this: ‘Many people disapprove, dislike, and are mortified by adultery, however, who would call them adulterophobic?’ Er, yes it would by definition. Interesting that you imply adultery is on the same level as (practising) homosexuality. Do you think it is on the same level as incest, as Gagnon does?
    3. ‘In fact, some gay activist could use your post as evidence to make a formal complaint at certain persons in British Unis. The police would then use your blog post as part of a brief of evidence and pass it onto prosecutors.’ You’ve claimed that there’s no homophobia going on in legal terms so why worry? Besides, I very much down it would happen legally. You might have a problem if you want to run a B&B and turn gay couples away but that’s about as far as it goes and you’ll get support from the right wing press here. Also, whatever we say could have implications so should I shut up about discussing ideology in scholarship because some people might face the same standards others do? Should you and others shut up because of the impact your views would have on practising homosexuals in the discipline?
    4. ‘On Dawkins and Mao. Of course it was rhetoric. Yes, I know you’re not a New Atheist nor a secular fundamentalist.’ You mean bullshit then! 😉 As for ‘But Dawkins calls Christians homophobes, you called some Christians homophobes, ergo, analogy stands’…did you notice the shift from Christians to some Christians…? So, if there is any criticism of ‘some Christians’ as homophones this implies a Dawkins-esque position? What about Christians who call ‘some Christians’ homophobes, are they like Dawkins too? As for ‘On Chairman Mao, well, you are a bit of a leftie, and I do think the logic of your argument lends itself to a purge of formentioned homophobes from institutions.’ No it doesn’t. I argued that all positions should be allowed – and recall people like NT Wright have major positions so they are hardly excluded – and argued it explicitly. No matter how much we hate such positions. And you’ve picked the completely wrong leftist tradition. See this: http://dunedinschool.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/new-zealand-advertising-standards-authority-rules-against-jesus-heaing-cancer/

    I will happily have a drink obviously…

    And it is Peter Tatchell btw…