Friday, September 30, 2016

Richard Swinburne, the Ethics of Homosexuality, and the Ethics of Love

(Note to readers: I ran out of time on this before being able to track down and embed links to all the discussions I reference--but I thought it would be better to get this up while it is still timely than to wait. I may embed links later when I have more time.)

As most readers of this blog know, I'm in the midst of writing (actually revising) a book on same-sex marriage and the Christian love ethic.

What readers might not know is that I was part of an effort to bring Richard Swinburne, the eminent Christian philosopher of religion, to the Oklahoma State University campus--a visit that took place this past week. On Monday I met Swinburne, had lunch with him, and tried to help him figure out how to answer calls on his new cell phone (I wasn't much help). That evening I moderated his talk on arguments for the existence of God, which had an audience of 600 people not counting those watching on the live-feed from home. The following day, I introduced his lecture on "Humans have two parts--body and soul." I had him sign my copy of his book from which that lecture drew.

All things told, it was a delightful visit, and I was honored to have the chance to meet and interact with such an eminent and important leader in my field.

None of this would be fodder for a blog post were it not for what happened in the days just before Swinburne came to OSU. On the Friday before his visit, he gave a keynote talk at a divisional meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His topic was a departure for him: Christian sexual ethics. As part of that talk, he offered an argument in defense of the traditional, conservative Christian stance on homosexuality--a stance that I unrelentingly challenge in the book I'm now revising.

A member of the audience--J. Edward Hackett--got very upset, and not only objected to Swinburne's remarks during the Q&A but published a blog post about it, calling Swinburne's remarks "toxic." The post was widely disseminated on social media. The President of the Society for Christian Philosophers, Michael Rea, wrote a Facebook post expressing regret for hurt feelings, indicating that Swinburne's views do not necessarily represent the views of the society, and affirming the society's commitment to inclusiveness and diversity.

This triggered its own wave of outrage: A philosopher apologizing because another philosopher gave an argument for a controversial conclusion at a philosophy conference? A Christian philosopher apologizing for another Christian philosopher for defending a traditional Christian view?

All of this in the days leading up to Swinburne's visit to OSU, a day I'd been looking forward to for some time.

Of course the topic came up when I had lunch with him. After all, I was working on a book on the very topic that had just embroiled his name in a social media firestorm. He'd apparently read at least one of my articles on homosexuality, but was more interested in talking about an article I'd written with the provocative title "Swinburne's Lapse."

He knew my position on homosexuality, and I knew his. We disagreed--but since the topic was both peripheral to his career focus and unrelated to what he would be talking about at OSU, we didn't devote a lot of time to it. We ate pizza and tried to figure out his phone.

Of course, philosophers disagree about things all the time. In a sense, it's what we do for a living. And we disagree about things that impact human lives for good or ill. Some of the ideas that my fellow philosophers espouse are ones I think damage real human beings. They probably think the same about my ideas. And we have a beer together anyway. Or a pizza. Anyone unable to do that couldn't be philosophers--not and have any friends within the field.

That said, the topic of homosexuality is more than just an "issue." It's about people I love. It's about my gay best friend and my cousin. I can get very emotional about it. When I am engaging those who espouse the traditional view, my emotions give me energy to remain engaged. But I try not to be controlled by them. It is much more helpful to get opponents of LGBT equality to articulate their reasons clearly, and then examine their merits. When they are fellow philosophers who don't need to be prodded to clearly lay out their arguments, it can be downright refreshing.

There are important questions here about how we should live out the love ethic in relation to those who disagree with us. Swinburne is one of the greats in my field, a highly accomplished scholar who has earned my respect with his body of work. He is also a neighbor in the Christian sense, and I believe I am called to love my neighbors as myself. I am also called to love my gay and lesbian neighbors as myself--and Swinburne is endorsing a view that I think is harming them.

What is the best way to live out the love ethic in this situation? I can't answer that question in a blog post, but there are several things I want to say that are relevant to it.

1. Paying compassionate attention

I think Swinburne's view on homosexuality is mistaken. I think that the promulgation of that view, as a teaching of the church, has done immeasurable harm to my gay and lesbian neighbors over the centuries. I won't defend that view in this post, but I think it is important to state it.

From what I've gathered of his argument, Swinburne thinks that while not "intrinsically wrong" (which I assume means something like "wrong in itself") same-sex sex is "extrinsically wrong" (which I assume means something like "wrong because of some sort of external relation, such a violating an authorized and justified command or contributing for contingent reasons to some undesirable state of affairs").

This makes his condemnation of same-sex sex softer than what is common among conservative Christians. For him, it's not wrong in the way that lying or abusing people is wrong, but in the way that driving on the left-hand side of the road in the US is wrong. I can't tell you what I think of his case for this conclusion, since I haven't been able to study it. But I've looked at a lot of arguments, and I have yet to find any that can meet what I take to be an extremely powerful burden of proof created by the fact that immersion in communities that teach the categorical condemnation of homosexuality is harmful to gays and lesbians who belong to those communities. Depending on native dispositional qualities, some can be driven to the brink of suicide.

An abstract argument that doesn't get down and dirty and wrestle with the actual life stories of gays and lesbians whose lives have been broken on the wheel of condemnation is unlikely to be very compelling to me or anyone else who cares deeply about their gay and lesbian neighbors. Unlike abstract questions in philosophy of religion or epistemology--which have been the focus of Swinburne's career--ethics, especially applied ethics, often demands serious engagement with human stories. This is even more true for Christian ethics, which calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Such love demands compassionate attention to the experiences and life stories of our neighbors. Unless and until Swinburne offers an argument that is deeply informed and shaped by sustained attention to the lived experiences of gays and lesbians, I doubt his argument will convince me--and nothing I have heard suggests that Swinburne's argument at the SCP was informed by such attention.

(Note: there is a big difference between saying an argument of a certain kind is unlikely to convince me and saying that it won't enlighten me, deepen my thinking, or in other ways be useful in shaping my intellectual development. Swinburne's argument may well be very useful--offering distinctions and qualifications that may have bearing on my thought--even if it is of a kind that's unlikely to convince.)

One way I can show love in this case is to stress the importance of not exploring the ethics of homosexuality and same-sex marriage without paying compassionate attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors. There is nothing unloving about offering such advice to my conservative Christians brothers and sisters--some of whom I greatly admire as eminent scholars in my field who have shaped me in many ways. I suspect that advice will do more good that calling them "f***ing a**holes," as one Yale philosopher has done.

But if I offer such advice, I cannot then refuse to pay compassionate attention to Swinburne and others who espouse the traditional teaching. And such compassionate attention requires honest and fair assessments of their convictions and motives. This leads me to my next point.

2. Recognizing motives 

I am certain that Swinburne does not think the traditional teaching on homosexuality causes harm. He is not defending it in order to harm our gay and lesbian neighbors, even if I believe that is the actual effect. Or, more precisely, that is what I take to be the effect on gays and lesbians who belong to a community in which this view is treated as normative and significant. It's belonging to a community that teaches this which is harmful, not the arguments of a single philosopher, no matter how eminent. But I'm sure Swinburne does not agree with that, and in trying to preserve such a community he is not doing it in order to cause harm.

To put the point another way, if Swinburne believed that the teaching were a source of harm, he wouldn't be publicly defending it. Swinburne believes that this teaching is good and helpful as sincerely as I believe that it causes harm.

It may be worth pointing out that he didn't decide on this keynote topic on his own. He didn't set out to beat up on gays. I don't think I'm breaking any confidentiality when I say that during our lunch conversation, Swinburne told me how this came to be his topic. He'd offered some advice to philosophers of religion, to the effect that they should apply their distinctive training and expertise to contemporary social questions such as sexual ethics. And that advice prompted an invitation to follow the advice himself in his SCP address. Since he'd given the advice, he didn't feel as if he could refuse. And so he put something together.

This is not an issue that he has focused his career on or written a book about (I think it comes up briefly in his book on revelation). Rather, he was treading into largely new territory at the request of the conference organizers. If he did not display the kind of awareness of LGBT issues that others do, the most helpful response is to educate him, not denounce him.

Swinburne was asked to talk on a topic that was new to him, and he thought that resources from his own discipline might be useful in clarifying some of the moral issues. Were they? I wasn't at the talk, but I have learned lots from people I disagree with. Philosophers whose views I find misguided often provide ways of thinking about those very issues that deepen my insight even while I reject their arguments and conclusions. Is that true of Swinburne's thinking in this case?

I don't know. But I do know that Christian love calls for grace. And this leads to my next point.

3. Choosing our words with care and showing grace for failures

Given everything I know about Swinburne through reading his work, given what he told me about the argument he delivered at the SCP meeting, given the little I have gleaned about his argument form third parties, and given the talks I have now seen him deliver, I am convinced of the following: Swinburne offered a thoroughly dispassionate, analytically careful, abstractly intellectual argument for a conclusion he wanted to defend--with plenty of distinctions and deductive arguments and no deliberate personal attacks. I am pretty confident that he approached this as an issue of intellectual interest, as opposed to thinking of the faces of gay and lesbian loved ones (as I do every time I approach this topic).

That said, he reportedly used language that, when I read it in Hackett's post, immediately made me cringe. One premise of his argument was that gays and lesbians suffer from a "disability" insofar as their romantic sexual unions can't produce children. Another was that this is an "incurable condition." This language choice displays the kind of lack of familiarity with the LGBT community that is unsurprising in an elderly Christian philosopher who has spent his career focused primarily on traditional questions in the philosophy of religion, travels in circles where most gays and lesbians probably remain in the closet, and has not spent a long time considering these issues.

But here's the thing. These claims on Swinburne's part are claims I make in my book--but in different terms.

I do not call homosexuality a disability or an incurable condition, because I know that this language invokes the idea of "sickness"--and I know how that language has been used to abuse sexual minorities. But in my book and elsewhere, I argue that same-sex couples are like infertile heterosexual couples in that they can pursue the "unitive" end of sexual intimacy but not the procreative end. Of course, my aim is to argue the following: It would be unloving to bar infertile couples from marrying and pursuing loving union just because the union won't be reproductive; and it is likewise wrong to prohibit same-sex marriages for this reason.

But here's the thing: infertility is usually considered a disability. By comparing gay couples to infertile ones as part of my argument for their right to marry, I am likening them to a class of people who are often called disabled without anyone blinking an eye. But I know that many gays and lesbians have been kicked out of their parents' homes with the word "sick" ringing in their ears. I've held the hands of gay friends who were still scarred by abuse that was couched in the language of "sickness." And so I try to steer clear of such language.

Similar remarks apply to the other claim of Swinburne's that evokes the language of sickness--the claim that homosexuality is an "incurable condition." I have argued time and again that gays and lesbians cannot be expected to change their sexuality, that so-called conversion therapies and ex-gay ministries don't work. My gay and lesbian friends agree with me on this. If one were oblivious to the experiences of LGBT persons and the way the sickness label has been used to abuse them, one might make this point using the words "incurable condition"--and have no idea how that will stir up all sorts of painful crud among gay and lesbian listeners.

The thing about analytic philosophers of religion is this: Many if not most of them spend more time in their heads thinking about things like modal logic and probability theory than they do reflecting on how word choices are related to human feelings. While this is perhaps a human failing, all of us have failings and we need to treat each other with grace.

This means we shouldn't react as if an elder scholar whose career has focused on completely different issues, for whom all of this is mostly new, should know better. Oblivious use of terms that hurt is an opportunity to share stories about why they hurt, not to repudiate and shame.

The issue in these cases is not with the claims Swinburne is making but with his choice of words. I'm not saying that the words we use to express an idea don't matter. What I'm suggesting is that we need to engage one another in a spirit of grace, understanding where other people come from and not going on the offensive every time their word choice offends.

Let me offer an analogy from grading. Sometimes, I assign an essay on a topic and student after student makes the same oversight. The first time it happens, I calmly explain the oversight in the margins. The twentieth time it happens, I'm feeling exasperated. I want to scream, "How many times do I have to tell you this?!" I have to remind myself that I haven't told the same person this twenty times. For each of them, it is the first time they are hearing it. And for each of them, that first time may open their eyes, give them an "a ha!" moment, and lead their thinking in a new direction. But not if I make the point in a tone of outraged indignation as if I've been telling them this over and over and they haven't been listening. That'll just inspire defensiveness.

I remember, years ago, being at a discussion on homosexuality and the church where I used the phrase "gay lifestyle." A gay man in the discussion calmly explained the associations that term had for him, and the reasons it grated on him. I don't how many times he'd made that point. Probably many, many times. But for me it was the first time. His sharing was personal. It didn't make me defensive. And I stopped using the term. I doubt things would've gone so smoothly if he'd said, instead, "How many times do I have to tell you people that there is no *#$@! gay lifestyle!"

4. Embracing (rather than shutting down) discussion opportunities

Finally, if I'm right about the negative impact the traditional Christian teaching has on gays and lesbians who belong to communities that teach it, there is good reason to have serious discussion and debate within communities--such as conservative Christian ones--that still teach it. Such discussion and debate is not facilitated by efforts to shame and silence people who lay out, with admirable analytical clarity, their reasons for supporting this teaching. Especially in philosophy, every such effort to lay out arguments is intended as an invitation to raise objections, level criticism, and engage in discussion. That's what philosophers do.

When philosophers who are conservative on this issue try to spell out arguments for their view at a philosophical conference, this is the perfect opportunity to have a discussion. That's what a philosophy conference is for. When it's a conference for Christian philosophers, what that means for me is the discussion is happening where it needs to happen: in a community whose members still widely teach that all homosexual acts are sinful. Swinburne did not merely offer an argument for the conservative Christian position. He did so in a venue whose norms and standards invite vigorous critical discussion. As such, he created an opportunity to critically discuss the ethics of homosexuality and same-sex marriage exactly where I think that critical discussion most urgently needs to happen.

The question is what we should do with such opportunities. What did Hackett do with it? What did the rest of us do in the aftermath? Will these choices make it more or less likely that such opportunities will arise again?

To respond to opportunities for meaningful dialogue with repudiation and attack probably isn't the most productive strategy, and it certainly isn't the most loving.

That said, I know that many people carry deep hurt and anger over the ways in which the church has perpetuated and magnified anguish for gays and lesbians. It is too easy to dismiss someone like Hackett, who rises up to offer an angry rebuke to an elder statesman in the discipline, as offering nothing but a"semi-coherent rant." But behind such anger there is human pain, and pain cries out for compassion.

Philosophers are used to engaging with issues on a purely intellectual level. But when the topic is something like homosexuality, what is at stake are the lives and loves of real human beings, with histories and emotional lives. This fact may have actual bearing on what conclusions we should reach; but it also has bearing on which approaches to argument and debate are likely to be most productive. Patience and grace and compassion may, on this level, prove to be important philosophical virtues.


I want to say something about Michael Rea's "apology," which many have denounced.

On the one hand, I don't think it is wrong for a philosopher at a philosophy conference to give a talk defending a view that the philosopher accepts, with the understanding that others are encouraged to ask critical questions and raise objections. Hence, it isn't wrong for Swinburne to give such a talk, whatever we might think of the view being defended.

So, in that sense, there wasn't anything to apologize for. But strictly speaking, Rea did not apologize for what Swinburne said. He expressed regret for any hurt caused at the meeting, clarified that Swinburne's view was not that of the society, and affirmed a commitment to welcoming diverse people and perspectives (while affirming the shared foundation of Christian faith of the society's members).

Can anything be said for issuing such a "disclaimer"? I'm still not sure what I think of his decision to explicitly distance Swinburne's views from those of the SCP. Ordinarily, this distance is taken for granted at philosophy conferences, which may lead some readers to suppose that the real message is that those with Swinburne's views are not welcome to express them at the SCP. But much hinges here on the history of the SCP on this issue and the broader perceptions of the philosophical community. And this distancing is related to something I am sure about, which I turn to now.

Gays and lesbians have a long history of not feeling welcome in Christian communities. And the SCP is a Christian community. Absent any statement by SCP officials to the contrary, it is quite possible, even likely, that at least some gays and lesbians upon hearing second-hand about Swinburne's keynote address would get the impression that the SCP does not welcome their perspectives, their ideas, or their presence. Even if this impression is inaccurate, it could stifle the diversity that Rea talks about nurturing.

Furthermore, gays and lesbians have lived what for me and other straight Christians can only be an hypothesis--that immersion in communities that teach the categorical condemnation of homosexuality causes harm to gays and lesbians. Other straight Christians may doubt its truth, but many gay and lesbian Christians experience it not as an hypothesis to which they might give intellectual assent but at a painfully inescapable feature of their personal histories. As such, an assurance of welcome that does not include something about the views of the society might be experienced as disingenuous.

But this is tricky. Some are afraid of any community where the categorical condemnation of homosexuality is granted hegemony and significance, because they have experienced the harms that such a community does to its LGBT members. Out of such fear, they fear any community that allows this condemnation to be expressed without rebuke. But there is an enormous difference between a community that preaches this condemnation and a community which cultivates an environment where people who believe in this condemnation feel welcome to make their case for it, knowing that there will be challenges and critical discussion (but not efforts to shame and silence). A philosophical society surely should be the latter--and there is need for the latter. And for reasons already mentioned, the SCP would be a particularly valuable place for the latter.


  1. One might ask as an aside whether the public university sponsored by the state of Oklahoma is right to behave like a theological institution, and such a partisan one at that. This event reeks of establishment of religion, comfortably scorning the secular purpose of the state and institution, as well as any non-Christians who might be about. Not just Swinburne himself, but his whole field of religious philosophy is an intellectual travesty, unworthy of entry to modern departments of philosophy, let alone publicly-funded institutions of learning.

    1. Burk, Burk, Burk.

      Last year, the OSU philosophy department sponsored a philosophy lecture with the title, "Why I am not a Christian." The discipline of philosophy of religion features scholars on all sides of the issues. One of my colleagues whose work is in Kantian philosophy of religion--arguably the most respected scholar in the department--is a rather out-and-proud atheist.

      That there is a discipline on this campus (and elsewhere) in which these issues are discussed and debated does so much for opening the eyes of students for whom these issues have always been just about someone making authoritative pronouncements from the pulpit. Philosophy of religion invites them to critical engagement with these beliefs in lieu of such blind appropriation.

      It also invites atheists and agnostics to such critical engagement with THEIR beliefs. It WOULD be a travesty, I think, if public universities simply assumed the truth of your preferred atheistic worldview without making room for the kind of critical reflection that opposing perspectives inspires.

      Philosophy or religion is, like other philosophy sub-disciplines, driven by the critical engagement of opposing perspectives defended rigorously with arguments and compelled to take seriously objections to those arguments. It is not a theistic propaganda machine.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi Eric, Thank you. I completely concur. Peace, Jim

  3. Nice post, Eric. Insightful and charitable. Well done.

  4. Thank you for sharing such an amazing and informative post. Really enjoyed reading it. :)nice articles...Please read more....

    Look to God for a Happy Marriage

  5. Great post Eric! Seems "spot on" to me. Thank you for taking the time to craft your blog response.

  6. This discussion is very helpful for me and have to say I am with you Eric. In the '80s I had a very close friend that was gay. We both attended a fundamentalist church and I was enrolled in their bible college. My friend went through agonizing introspection about his sexuality. He felt he was deviantly abnormal, God despised and the church burnished that concept into him. Christians who regurgitate abstract church dogma have very little vantage point to understand this until they experience real life scenarios. Sure, there are complexities to the issue but I think love and compassion are the Jesus rules to follow forward.

  7. As an attendee to the conference, I empathized with the point raised about Swinburne's talk. Anger does not shut down discourse. It opens it up. By referencing the medical gaze, we see how power in that discourse dehumanizes gay people. The function of language external to the argument has everything to do with the argument along pragmatic lines since the truth of ideas in the consequences they generate for practical action.

    1. Anger is powerful. It clearly has an important place in discourse and debate. It can open up discourse. It can also be used to silence. It can rattle established power dynamics in ways that allow disempowered voices to be more clearly heard. It can also feed those power dynamics in counterproductive ways. In other words, anger as I see it is potent, but its potency can cut in more than one direction. Channeling it in the right ways--for me, in the service of love--is therefore crucial.

  8. Hi Eric, great piece. I would like to inform everybody that the talk Swinburne gave is up at youtube now (unfortunately the Q&A seems to be missing)

  9. For context, watch Dr. Swinburne's complete lecture:

  10. Hi Eric, I'm glad that you, as a straight ally, have the emotional distance from the subject to engage with thinkers like Swinburne on the traditional terms of philosophical debate, which privileges "objective and dispassionate" conversation between two parties assumed to be on an equal footing. I would just caution that this discourse model is itself open to challenge for its ignoring of power relations. In other words, we run into trouble when we expect actual LGBT people to defend their existence calmly and charitably at all times, as some sort of ideal of Christian virtue or best practices in philosophy. A case could be made that the burden of proof is on straight Christians to explain why their opinion on a matter that does not affect them should be on an equal footing with LGBT people's testimony about what they need for survival.