It was a great disappointment, if not exactly a surprise, to read a recent letter from British Christian leaders urging the U.K. government to ban “conversion therapy” for transgender persons. The signatories were calling for such a ban to be included in a proposed law aimed at protecting gay persons from efforts to help them change their sexual orientations. Transgender persons, the letter states, are on a “sacred journey” to become “whole” and should be protected from such efforts as much as anyone. First among the signatories is former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, one of our leading theologians and a wonderful Christian, whom I otherwise admire greatly and to whom I am gratefully obligated on many levels.
Efforts at supporting individuals who wish to order their sexual identities within the heterosexual norms of traditional human society strike me as reasonable, if pursued with respect and love. For young people in particular who struggle with a sense of their own biological identity as male or female, such efforts seem to me morally compelling. The letter in question offers little in terms of rationale for the signatories’ support of the “ban.” But a few key words offer a window onto the core of their concern: “pressure,” “manipulation,” and “coercion.” It seems that, according to the signatories, encouraging people to live the sexual lives ordered by their biological sex is a form of oppression. This strikes me as completely misconceived.
From one perspective our lives are a grand bundle of coercions: being born, dying after a few short decades (or earlier), having this or that set of parents and family, this or that body, growing and living here and not there, losing those we love, weakening and getting ill, being beset by wars, worries, wasting. We ask for none of it, but it is all dished out to us just the same.
Yet human beings and their diverse societies have never seen existence as coercive. However burdensome, existence is seen as worthy, and we have sought to guard and nourish the central aspects that uphold this unasked-for life. These include the fundamental elements of our bodily existence, whose brief survival is given in relation to others: parents, grandparents, siblings, children, neighbors. Judaism and Christianity have gone so far as to call these elements “gifts” from the hand of God. Indeed, the very elements of boundedness and pressing finitude that define these gifts in all their evanescence we call “good,” however mortal.
Gifts are tended, and mortal gifts especially. Even the growing of tomatoes requires prudence, skill, and intuition—all gleaned from a deep tradition—as well as the humility to learn from failure. Human mortal goods—our bodies and generational relationships—are infinitely more complex. That only means that the forms of their tending are also infinitely more critical and profound, as is the care and humility of their exercise.
I am personally grateful that, at a time of sexual confusion in my adolescence and young adulthood, I had access to the direction of older Christians, including clergy and counselors, with whose encouragement I was able to sort some of this out. I found my place within the great stream of tending to our mortal goods in ways that human beings have always done. It has been a place filled with joys and sorrows, both profound and quotidian. But both have been divinely transfigured by God’s blessing of this common gift as an essential mark of his creative grace, vessels of Christ’s “enlivening” Spirit (Rom. 8:11). Were I forbidden to witness to this grace, it would not only prove a frustration, but an attack upon that grace itself.
The increasing cultural revolt against the limits of divine creation—what defines our existence as a gift—would sweep away the wisdom behind human thanksgiving. Seeing the grace of mortal goods as itself coercive has given rise to a voracious existential libertarianism that would consign individuals to the feeble devices of an ill-equipped individual's untethered desires and reactions. That suicide should become, as it has, the state-validated endpoint of this Sisyphean revolt is a logical conclusion.
That said, it would also be deeply irresponsible to ignore what we have learned in recent years about the real psychological and often physical abuse of those struggling to discern their place within the common stream of tending mortal goods. There have been brutal impositions of our own frightened self-image upon others in the form of grotesquely savage “therapies” aimed at transforming desires. But since immoral coercion arises only when the interplay between wisdom and humility becomes grossly distorted, “bans” (along with the culture supporting them) are as violent as are the assaults on human confusion and searching that those supporting such bans seek to limit. We need not go into the bizarre and cruel subjection of young people, their emotions and brains still malleable, to invasive transgender chemical and surgical procedures, in order to sense the strange way that the semantics of “coercion” have descended into a moral pit.
We are surely called to a more intense humility in the face of the presumption owed to the wisdom of the past. Perhaps there are some societies that have managed the balance better than our own, such as, arguably, some indigenous communities in North America. At least we might listen to them more carefully. But even that now seems a vanishing hope. The 2019 debacle of the Canadian Anglican church’s attempt to change its traditional marriage canon featured a dispiriting vilification of indigenous Christian leaders who scuttled the canon change by upholding their more balanced vision on sexuality. Their views are now widely disdained. The previously unimaginable prospect of criminalizing the wisdom of our elders, theologians included, seems ever closer.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.
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