Friday, July 11, 2008

Donald Hanway's "Fresh Look at a Sensitive Topic"

My friend, James, recently loaned me a very interesting and insightful book by Donald G. Hanway, entitled: A Theology of Gay and Lesbian Inclusion: Love Letters to the Church.

Publishers Weekly notes that:

Hanway, a retired Episcopal priest, wants to equip Christians to advocate on behalf of gays and lesbians, and to speak with love and respect to those who disagree. He writes as a pastor, offering 10 open letters to the church in defense of homosexuals, often using their own words and descriptions of the prejudice they have encountered. These faithful homosexual Christians, Hanway says, did not choose their orientation, but have dealt patiently and faithfully with the difficulties of being misunderstood. Hanway also discusses the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality, emphasizing that the Gospel is indeed ‘good news’ for all people. The book is strongest when Hanway is sharing the personal stories of gay people who discuss their faith and their hopes for the future.

I’ve added Hanway’s book to The Wild Reed’s Catholic Bibliography on LGBT Issues, and would like to share in this post excerpts from “Letter 5” – “Humans as Sexual Beings: A Fresh Look at a Sensitive Topic.”


Sexuality is part of who we are; it is not just a matter of what we do. Some pious Christians would prefer to compartmentalize sex, just as some would prefer to compartmentalize religion – that is, make it one part of their lives separate from the rest of their lives. However, that is not how religious faith works, and that is not how sexuality works. We bring our sexual identity and feelings with us every place we go – not blatantly, perhaps, but as an influential part of ourselves, always present whether we recognize it or not.

One view of sex is that it is a necessary evil, and that God doesn’t want us to think about it except at very specific and necessary times. Let me ask you this: Who do you think invented sex? More important, why was sex invented? Was it only for the perpetuation of the species, or might sex have other purposes as well? Might it not be another part of the rich banquet of creation that we are to celebrate and manage wisely . . .

It is quite true that sex may become a false god, just as money and other forms of power easily usurp God. It is also quite true that sex can become an addiction, as television and gambling and alcohol and food and dieting and anger and shopping and work can become addictions. Part of what makes sex so tempting, though, is the way we have made it highly visible yet unmentionable.

Many people take the view that if we don’t talk about something we can keep people, especially young people, from thinking about it, but if that doesn’t work with the other elephants – such as prejudice, death, and the obscene and growing gap between wealth and poverty – why should it work with this elephant? Sure, if we talk too much about sex we might lead people to think it is more important than it really is, but if we don’t talk about it, what will people think then? Just to talk about sex at all is, in the minds of some, to give it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve, as a second-class part of God’s creation, ranking somewhere around the process of eliminating waste products from our bodies. Their attitude becomes “Let’s not talk about it; people might get the wrong idea.” What would that idea be?

Some hold the view that the Church is or should be asexual, as though that is more “holy” than being sexual. However, what “holy” really means is not “removed from the physical world” but “dedicated to God.” Everything in our lives should be so dedicated.

Here is where we are, as a culture in nominally Christian America today: conflicted, hypocritical, fearful, and confused. On the one hand, we package sex as a commodity and use it to sell all sorts of other commodities, including politicians, cars, health products, clothes, physical fitness and diet, and leisure pursuits. On the other hand, we treat sex as a shameful secret to be hidden from our children, even when they already know about it.

. . . How did we become a culture so sexually liberated on the one hand, while being so sexually repressed on the other? In the United States we are not two different cultures where sex is concerned, but a single, pervasively confused culture. How did we become so conflicted about such a fundamental part of life? The short answer is fear, compounded by envy and religious hegemony in spite of our professed religious tolerance. Because sex is an important part of life and we all have an interest in it, both societal and personal, we are afraid on multiple levels.

. . . At times it seems that sex is one of God’s jokes on the human race. Certainly it produces a lot of pain and confusion as it is presented to us through the conflicted norms of American culture and the voices of the media. Young males endowed with raging testosterone are told for many years: “Look, but don’t you dare touch!” Young females are often told: “You must make yourself desirable, but don’t you dare let anyone satisfy that desire with you!” Gay and lesbian youth and adults may be told: “Your desire is even more ridiculous and offensive than normal desires, so you really can’t act on it!” Lost in this wilderness of fear and folly is any remembrance of the essential goodness of God’s creation, or the dignity of human beings as moral agents made in the image of God.

Sexuality and spirituality may be related in more than one way. They may be placed in opposition to one another, in a reversion to Greek dualism, which is not biblical. In this view, the Church tends to be seen as the enforcer of socially approved sexual behavior, and homosexual relationships are ruled out as incompatible with traditional Christian teaching. Another way, which is biblical, is to see sexuality as an expression of relationship, including divine-human relationship. In this view, sexuality and spirituality are partners, and both are a divine gift. Either can be misused, and so corrupt the other, or they can be mutually reinforcing, as in the case of same-sex partners who demonstrate in their long-term committed relationship a fidelity that mirrors the faithfulness of God.

- Excerpted from A Theology of Gay and Lesbian Inclusion: Love Letters to the Church by Donald G. Hanway (Haworth Press, 2006).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Joan Timmerman on the “Wisdom of the Body”
What Is It That Ails You?
Compassion, Christian Community, and Homosexuality
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
Real Holiness
My Advent Prayer for the Church
In the Footsteps of Spring
Grounded Angel
Love is Love
And Love is Lord of All


Anonymous said...

Assuming two facts: (1) the church negates natural law theory, (2) the church argues against itself in the Epistle to the Romans about the primacy of god over man, and that worship of creatures is acceptable to the god(s), don't expect a fresh look at anything. NLT is about 2,200 years old, and fallacious in committing the naturalistic fallacy -- deriving "ought" from "is," of values from facts.

And regarding the Roman's epistle, that claims homophilia is idolatry, seems self-evidently true to me. Indeed, anyone who challenges the revelation is idolatrous AGAIN (x2) in holding his personal judgment ABOVE god's revelation, which is a clear case of a debased mind holding its personal judgment above that of god and his church.

Only if (1) and (2) are sacrificed as false will "a fresh look" surface. It won't be new, it will simply be the classical view that the Church and its allies suppressed, oppressed, and repressed, which the Church and its allies succeed marvelously well doing.

It's about obedience, Michael, not about true and false facts. No one asks us to believe the Church because it is true, we are told to believe it because god commands us to. Given that dynamic, maybe Plato's dialogue Euthyphro will make its relevance felt. The "fresh look" was made stale eons ago.

Anonymous said...

So, TGS, there's nothing transcendent in Christianity? Or any other religion? When you say "obedience" I hear "power." If this is all about power, doesn't all religion stand condemned, regardless of how progressive it aims to be?

Anonymous said...

"Let me ask you this: Who do you think invented sex? More important, why was sex invented? Was it only for the perpetuation of the species, or might sex have other purposes as well? Might it not be another part of the rich banquet of creation that we are to celebrate and manage wisely . . ."

There's a life's work in epistemology and teleology grounding Hanway's assertions here. I wonder how much of this work he does in his book?

Anonymous said...

The evolution of sexuality is documented very nicely for lay audiences in Matt Ridley's The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, one of many Ridley books that is not only scientific but a pleasure to read.

"Religion," which is the Abrahamic Traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, differs from "spiritualism," which is far more expansive and without dogmatism, much less obedience to human intermediaries (rabbis, priests, books, imams). All religions requires their lens be used to view the world and man in it, going all the way back to Zorastrianism, the primitive religion from which J - C - I developed.

Spiritualism, by contrast, allows a pluralistic lens, a freedom to view the world through many lenses: The lens of abstraction, experience, science, art, philosophy, and mathematics.

Religion has "orthodox" and "orthopraxis," while spiritualism has neither, but is "heterodox" and "heteropractic," and among religionists only the "ortho-" is permitted, the "hetero-" excommunicated, burned at the stake, inquisitioned, or punished in hell for eternity.

Religion makes "contradictions" into illicit paradoxes, while spiritualism takes paradoxes as enlightening the ineffable. Religion denies spiritualism, and substitutes mysticism in its place, where abnegation becomes "fullness," and "sinner" becomes "saved" and "evil" becomes "ecstasy," turning classical values into social evils and personal sin, through control, fear, and authority.

One obeys -- not because we believe the Sabbath is a day of rest -- but because an authority tells us to make the Sabbath rest. One believes -- not because of the truth -- but because of the absurdity, which licenses authority to dictate more absurdities, including turning one's cheek when struck, rather than defend oneself. Who in their right mind would obey such nostrums? Does the deity really get exercised over "mixed fabrics," and men lying with men? Is it really "just" to stone to death rebellious sons under Mosaic Law? To mutilate the natural beauty of the phallus to bear the sign of tribalism? Who contrives such nonsense in the first place?

The "priestly" classes. The "political" classes. The two "authorities" that have used each other to empower each other. It is why Constantine made Christianity the Roman Empire's official religion, even though he did not believe, and had to convene the Council of Nicea to determine what "ought" to be believed, as he was unsure what the State should demand from its religious authorities.

Obedience to authorities other than oneself, reason, experience, is religion's sole raison d'etre. Citing Karl Rahner, the Church is both organism and organization; take away one or the other, and it is a tyrant. Take away both and one is free to be spiritual as one is allowed.