?by robert r. reilly?
ignatius, 250 pages, $22.95
Robert Reilly provides a relentlessly unsparing examination of the ways in which a radically new, and certainly destructive, understanding of human life and morality has been legitimated under the banner of gay rights. He marshals evidence of what is now becoming well known to those who are willing to listen: that the medical and educational communities have shifted their views on homosexuality on the basis of personal desire and political bullying rather than careful investigation, reflection, and open debate.
In outlining the judicial decisions leading to same-sex marriage, Reilly demonstrates how the invocation of privacy law to protect gay sex quickly obscured the moral dignity of persons, especially children. He also offers a caustic look at the California decision overturning Proposition 8, where a gay federal judge took up all the arguments that had been littering the legal scene and shuffled them into a self-serving mess. As illustration, it goes to the heart of the revolution Reilly is describing. It alone is worth the price of the book.
But Reilly also wants to place all this in a quasi-philosophical context shorn of explicitly Christian argument. It is here that the volume comes up short. Reilly’s argument, though extended, is simple: America’s leaders lost their way by forgetting Aristotle and becoming ideological slaves of Rousseau. Aristotle and “the Greeks” understood something called “Nature,” which constitutes the “objective” character of every being. Everything has a “natural end” and moral purpose. With Rousseau, objective natural ends are thrown out, and instead human “intentions” determine our purposes, which leads inexorably to nihilism, hedonism, and homosexuality. It is naturally obvious that human sexual organs are made for heterosexual penetration—they “fit”—and that homosexual sex (for Reilly, this is embodied especially in anal penetration) is a mis-fit. To insist that “gay is okay” is to throw out Nature for the sake of the personal desire of a tiny minority.
Reilly seems to think that this argument is both an obvious as well as a persuasive tack to take. Wanting to avoid any basic appeal to religious revelation, he insists that “reason,” properly informed by such natural clues, can see all the problems he bitingly recounts in recent American history. I think he is wrong; and his mistake is further compounded by tendentious histories of his own making.
For example, his celebration of Socrates and Aristotle. Was Socrates “against” homosexuality, as Reilly claims? Perhaps. But he could get quite excited by stealing a glance between a young man’s thighs (see Charmides). To be sure, the true philosopher has better things to do. And Plato in the Laws is clear on what they are. But Plato’s views are all theory, not practice. Reilly has no interest in actual sexual behavior in fifth-century Athens.
Aristotle also poses problems. What is one to do with his notions about infanticide? Or abortion, however controlled? Or slavery and the “nature” of a human person (i.e., those who are “slaves by nature,” in Aristotle’s definition)? Reilly leaves all this unexplored, yet he valorizes Aristotle’s “natural ends” theories as not only unproblematic but intuitively compelling. One could perhaps do a lot with certain elements in these knotted classical discussions, but one will have to work hard at it, and in ways that engage theology and history subtly.
The tendency to work with ideas independent of history and theology also muddies Reilly’s science. To say that 40 percent of births in America are to unmarried persons masks important differences between ethnic groups and explains little about the roles of education, economics, delayed marriage, and poverty. Or again: Most studies regarding the physical and mental health of homosexuals, some cited but not explored by Reilly, themselves note that they rely on self-selection and self-identification. They are not well calibrated to the AIDS epidemic or to changed civil contexts and do not provide the kind of wide sampling that is necessary in order to draw strong conclusions.
The dominoes that Reilly sets up in his conclusion also fall too tidily: first divorce, then contraception, then—inevitably—same-sex affirmation. It’s all part of the logical unraveling of Nature’s fabric. But is it? While there may be some special genetic linkage here that is peculiar to Europe (invisible in the book) or America, it is certainly not sustainable generally. Consider Muslim society, which has permitted divorce from the start but whose tolerance of open homosexual behavior is obviously limited.
A number of key developments contributed to this social change in the West, but Reilly does not discuss them. The political emancipation of women is of enormous significance and cannot neatly fit into the natural moral order Reilly is pressing. Divorce law changed in eighteenth-century England out of concern over the abuse of women. Was this all unnatural?
Improvements in healthcare as well as expanding access to education and professional engagement for women altered understandings of sexuality in ways that are still being felt. The great “health transition,” as some call it, seemed to require adjustment in the face of changed possibilities for human flourishing. Increased life span, transformation of economic roles, lowering fertility rates, educational opportunity, and loosening generational ties all place enormous pressures on sexual expectations and behavior. The courts’ decisions that Reilly tracks take place during a time of radical change in physical well-being, and they reflect that change and its consequences as much as they do some putative intellectual rejection of Aristotelian categories. The courts have been playing catch-up, well or poorly, to forces we still don’t quite understand because they are unique in human history.
The cultural and religious impact of AIDS, finally, is important. While Reilly is adept at fingering the political manipulation of the AIDS crisis by gay advocates, he ignores the real opening of love between church folk and gay people, often family and friends, that the epidemic forced. This was frequently accompanied by wrenching suffering and shared personal loss, which profoundly altered how many Christians came to view homosexuals. The confrontation with previously unacknowledged sexual practices, now bound to fragile mortal existence, polarized attitudes in ways we have not yet gauged. Reilly’s own tone is an expression of this.
Reilly’s story, then, is inadequate. As such, it undermines the credibility of many of his judgments. Would that it didn’t! Despite contextual missteps, Reilly rightly hammers home the deep logical and ethical pathology of the new moral consensus. The fear of imposing any moral limits has led to the dismembering of human community and individual dignity. This ought to be of profound concern to everyone. It remains incomprehensible that advocates of sexual liberation within our churches have simply failed to take this seriously and oppose it openly and vigorously—so craven have they become to the advancement of their own personal interests.
Today it feels as though we are facing an inexorable process of sexual liberation. Yet there are many precedents for unanticipated social reversals—the Christian movement to abolish slavery being among the most well known. But such a reversal of legal decision-making and reasoning is more often the result of either social catastrophe or revolution, hardly something to pray for.
In the end, Reilly’s abbreviated framework is inadequate because original sin has been airbrushed out. It is in facing the realities of embedded disorders, pathologies, deformities, and evil that the “natural” can best be understood. The movements Reilly criticizes are marked by a failure to confront embedded sin honestly and self-critically. That he deliberately avoids dealing with sin is unfortunate. Ultimately, it is not nature with which we have to deal, but the God of nature—indeed, not only ultimately but immediately. We must not suppose that, because Christian arguments have no purchase on cultural decision-making, we should mute their most explicitly Christian elements.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.
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