FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Embryos, Persons and the Mind of God 28 March 2008

“What one always has to bear in mind is that it’s the children that should come first – not chronologically or causally in this instance, of course, but in our thinking about what ultimately is in the mind of God for his children, as ‘our’ children have lived in his mind for all eternity. Does he want our children to be born of a father and a mother, and to grow up in the love of their father and mother? There can be no doubt, from the perspective of Christian faith, that the answer to this question is ‘yes’”.

The above is a quote from my last post, on gay marriage and adoption. This appeared first in my now discontinued (re-branded) blog, BTCP: Bisexual, Transgender, Christian and Proud Of It. There it inspired a couple of comments, which I haven’t copied over to the new format, one of which was to the effect that if it was in God’s mind to bring children into this world through the loving union of a father and mother, wouldn’t he just do this? My reply – paraphrasing myself – was essentially ‘no’: it might be God’s will that this should happen, but our sin impedes and distorts God’s will, and must therefore be allowed to damage creation (if our freedom to choose evil as well as good is to be genuine); and that God could not arbitrarily alter the laws of biology he had made to reflect and express his loving purpose in creation simply to prevent us from abusing those laws to create and destroy human life without regard to the moral law.

This got me thinking about how we live in the mind of God, both during our temporal existence as living and breathing human beings, and in His eternity (which we view from our time-bound perspective as ‘before’ and ‘after’ our mortal lives). And how does that relate to our human personhood, and the ethics of human reproduction and embryo research?

My point is this: from the perspective of faith, human life by definition is always personal in the sense that it is an embodiment – a bodily image or reproduction – of the personhood of God himself: Father, Son and the love of the Spirit that unites them and gives rise to the whole of creation as the expression and reflection of the divine love and self-understanding (the Word). In this light, insofar as any actual human life form comes into existence, it necessarily has this essential personal character – as part of its DNA, one might say. This is the case from the moment of conception: the human person that has lived in the mind of God for all eternity now also lives in a time-bound, physical form. The Concept (the Word) has manifested itself in a material body: conception; the Word becomes flesh; a human being is made in God’s image. That human personhood is therefore as complete in a single fertilised ovum or a collection of undifferentiated embryonic stem cells as it is in a newborn baby or mature adult: alive, and able to survive and prosper outside the womb.

When I say that this intrinsic personhood of human life is built into our ‘DNA’, this is also a reference to the fact that, with respect to our genetic inheritance, we are all the expression and product of the union of our biological father and mother, even if the loving moral and spiritual union of our father and mother that God wills for us was absent from the specific biological process of our conception. God loves us into being even when love is absent from the human reproductive processes involved.

Those who attempt to morally justify embryonic stem-cell research seek to do so by denying that undifferentiated embryonic cells do constitute a ‘human person’ or ‘human being’ that might have rights similar to those of born human beings or even foetuses, such as the right to life; the right not to have medical experiments conducted on one’s body / person against one’s will; or the right not to have one’s fundamental genetic structure manipulated and combined with that of other species. It is doubtless scientifically and descriptively true – looking at the question from a materialist perspective – that a collection of undifferentiated embryonic cells does not (yet) have the characteristics that one tends to think of as defining personhood: the beginning of the formation of a recognisably human body, with all the immensely complex variety of cell and tissue types, and bodily organs.

But firstly, the religious – or certainly, the Catholic Christian – moral objection to stem-cell research is not based on such a definition of personhood: the bodily characteristics that appear to denote our status as human beings and persons are in a sense only the ‘outer’ material form of our personhood that in essence lives and exists in God. Once those cells exist, a human person that lives in the mind of God has begun to unfold in time and space, and to reveal and be a small but integral part of God’s loving creative and redemptive purpose.

Secondly, from a purely logical perspective, it is quite arbitrary to declare that after, say, 14 days from conception, what had previously been regarded as a mere collection of undifferentiated cells is now to be regarded as an embryonic human person with rights that it did not have during the first two weeks of its existence. The embryonic person would not exist now had it not gone through 14, or however many, days of undifferentiated-cell existence. This is a continuous process; and to declare that in the later stages of its development, the embryo has a humanity or personhood (humanity defined as personhood) that it did not have in the necessary earlier stages that went before seems completely illogical and self-serving; and it flies in the face of our intuitive perception of when our lives as human persons begin: from the moment of conception when the DNA structures that define who we are started to be laid down.

Besides which, the time limit from which embryos and foetuses are recognised as human beings or persons with legal and human rights is arbitrarily moveable depending on the purpose that is being justified: 14 days in UK legislation with respect to regulating stem-cell research, but 24 weeks when it comes to the legal limit for abortions. When does an unborn human person become a full human being and, as it were, a citizen with full legal rights? It appears to be the case that what defines the threshold for an embryo or foetus to be recognised in law as a human person in this way is merely the point at which they become physically (visually) recognisable as viable, autonomous human entities from the particular perspective that is invoked: that of the medical researcher who recognises that, beyond a certain point, he is extracting cells not from an amorphous, undifferentiated mass but from an actual living embryo that is starting to take on the visual, albeit microscopic, form of a human body and person; or the perspective of medical practice and childbirth, where the 24-week abortion limit was based on the latest stage at which a foetus could not survive if plucked untimely from the womb – a time limit which, for that very reason, is being revised in the current UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, as medical advances have made it possible for foetuses to survive from an earlier age.

This really is a rather primitive and, indeed, material, irrational and superstitious way to decide when an unborn human entity becomes a human person: simply when it corresponds to our bodily image of a human being – paradoxically defining the humanness of unborn life purely in relation to the appearances and conditions for survival of born life. The unborn clearly don’t stand a chance if the odds are so heavily weighted against them. In reality, the vision of faith and the science in this matter fundamentally concur; at least when the science is logically understood as describing a process whereby recognisable bodily-human personhood (what we think of as our existence and personhood) necessarily begins in the undifferentiated (‘unrecognisably’ human) embryonic stem-cell state. If we are living human beings and persons now, that is because what we are now was already laid down and was potential within what we were from the moment of our conception – and, in the light of faith, within the eternal mind of God.

This is why, for me, it is so revealing that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which has provoked such heated debate in the UK during the last week owing to prime minister Gordon Brown’s initial refusal to allow his Labour Party MPs a free vote on its morally controversial aspects, should sanction such diverse measures as the creation of hybrid human-animal embryos for the purposes of stem-cell research, and the removal of a legal reference to the ‘need for a father’ on the part of children born to Lesbian couples through IVF or other assisted-conception treatment. This latter provision extends to the very birth certificate of such children, in which it will now be possible for both women to be registered as the real (biological) parents, even if neither of them actually are the genetic parents (for instance, if a fertilised egg from another couple is used as opposed to IVF using the eggs of one of the women). This means that such children are officially without a father. They retain their existing legal right to try and trace their genetic father as soon as they reach the age of maturity (18 in the UK); but they will never be allowed to officially recognise that person as their true father – in the eyes of the law, he becomes a ‘mere’ sperm donor and no more.

The thread that these two measures in the Bill have in common is that they involve a denial of those two aspects of unborn human life that are fundamental from its very beginning: that it is personal and a product of the union of a man and a woman, in the sense that, from conception, the human entity is an individuated, unique and living combination of the DNA of its parents – DNA which in turn defines their personhood. And from the faith perspective, the unborn human being is also of course sacred: a living human person ultimately made by God in his image, which we are therefore commanded to respect and protect. And such is, not just the vocation of the believer, but the true calling of science: not so much to determine the ‘mind of God’ through empirical and theoretical enquiry into the material world that is in God but is not God; but to seek ways to cure the ills of our mortal existence that do not violate the purity and beauty of human life that is called in Christ to share God’s mind and love for all eternity.

 

Providential and Evolutionary Purpose Of Homosexuality 27 March 2008

I’m sure there must be a respectable scientific theory about how homosexuality fits in with the evolutionary world view. My brief web search didn’t throw one up, however; there’s not even a learned article in Wikipedia. On the face of it, homosexuality appears to contradict the theory that we all have an innate interest in breeding in order to perpetuate our genes.

But there are two cultural assumptions in a statement such as this: firstly, that everyone does naturally wish to reproduce; and secondly, that you can draw a neat dividing line between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The theory that we are pre-programmed to try to disseminate our gene pool as widely as possible throughout subsequent generations could be said to exemplify and re-formulate in the modern scientific vernacular the age-old cultural beliefs and values that emphasise the critical importance of having a family – in some cultures (for certain men) several families.

Equally, the view that homosexuality might run counter to the normal functioning of natural selection is already in itself a manifestation of this sort of selection: the assumption is being made that heterosexuals will generally have a preference for heterosexual partners and, similarly, that there will always be a preference for same-sex partners on the part of homosexuals. In this way, inherent in the theory itself, there is a sort of ‘de-selecting’ of homosexuality from the description of normative ‘natural selection’, and a preferential selecting of heterosexuality as the type of sexuality that best fits the theory and the cultural preconceptions about reproduction. Hence, the theory of evolution itself mediates a culturally procreation-centric (’heterosexual’) view of sexuality.

But if the homosexual gene – if such a thing exists – has managed to perpetuate itself over the course of millennia (and recent evidence suggests it’s not about to die out), then either or both of the following propositions must be true: 1) not all sexual attraction, and sexual action, has the urge to reproduce as its core motivation, driver or underlying impulse; 2) homosexuality must have some positive purpose that could be explained in evolutionary terms as being connected with ensuring the survival of the species.

In relation to the first of these propositions, it’s ironic that evolutionary theory and traditional Christian doctrine (so often, but not always accurately, viewed as antagonistic belief systems) are in this respect the strangest of bedfellows. Certainly, the Catholic Church views reproduction as the fundamental natural purpose of the sexual instinct. It is seen as the duty of the Church to ensure that this instinct is expressed within a social, cultural and sacramental context (marriage) which most effectively suppresses that instinct’s innate tendency towards selfishness (the selfish gene) and helps to lead the individual into a more self-giving, loving existence of the kind to which all souls are called in Christ. It is because homosexuality does not – or at least, appears not to – fit this description of the procreative purpose of carnal desire that the Church refers to it as unnatural or disordered.

But you could look at this differently. It’s possible to view the sexual / reproductive instinct as expressed in conventional marriage as in fact being a rather selfish way of life: a life that places the satisfaction of the sex drive and the urge to reproduce at its very centre, albeit that the tendency of this instinct towards anarchic selfishness is restrained. Having a family is obviously a huge responsibility and a tremendously challenging task. But it’s also fundamentally what people choose to do for themselves; and it naturally involves putting themselves and their families first with respect to their needs, comfort and protection.

By contrast, gay sexuality could be seen as beginning to enact a movement away from selfish / reproductive desire towards love as the primary motivation for choosing to be with someone. Let’s say, rather, that gay sex – freed from the instinctual selfishness of the reproductive instinct but also from the social restraints upon free-flowing sexuality – tends to veer towards the extremes of either stable, loving, faithful relationships that are often more enduring than marriages; or else towards a self-centred, loveless, promiscuous way of life. Either way, homosexuality appears to be a form of sexuality that resists a description as being fundamentally concerned with reproduction and genetic self-replication. In Christian terms, one might say that homosexuality inherently implies a call to a higher love even than that which is expressed in Christian marriage: love for its own sake, distinct from the drive to reproduce, albeit only perfectly expressed in celibacy.

If homosexuality implies a natural tendency or spiritual calling towards altruistic love, perhaps this helps to explain why some heterosexuals are attracted to homosexuals; or – looking at it in evolutionary terms – why homosexuality might be a characteristic that it could be in the genetic self-interest of the individual or the species to perpetuate. It’s certainly an observable phenomenon that there are many women who are attracted to gay men: those that they know to be gay as well as those they don’t. I’m not sure whether the reverse phenomenon is equally as frequent: straight men being attracted to lesbians. The male sexual fantasy of lesbian sex is a well known cliché; but this is rather different from actual attraction or otherwise towards Lesbian women in the real world.

But as far as women being attracted to gay men is concerned, it’s not unknown for this to result in marriages and children – whether the gay man later comes out and the marriage breaks up, or not. Some of the men involved in such scenarios must deliberately suppress their homosexual leanings (in the sense both of not discussing them and of actually succeeding, if only temporarily, in denying them and displacing them onto attraction for their wives) in order to fulfil their own instinctual drive and desire to have children. Others may not be aware of their gay side and this surfaces only later – after the man has fulfilled his urge to reproduce.

This may sound somewhat fanciful. But there are many examples of this sort of situation, including in the Church: one thinks of the much-maligned Anglican Bishop of New Jersey, for instance. I know from my own experience that it’s possible to be largely unaware of one’s homosexuality for part of one’s adult life. When I was in that condition, I had a relationship with a woman (who, incidentally, definitely appears to have an inveterate tendency to be attracted to gay and / or feminine men) that might well have resulted in children. And I strongly suspect – again, partly based on personal experience – that the phenomenon of men who are less able to suppress their gay side after having raised a family is much more extensive than is commonly thought: still a largely hidden issue, as the men concerned very often continue to hide their homosexuality from their partners and families.

Looking at this from the perspective of natural selection, what interest do homophile women have in choosing gay men as the fathers of their children? Firstly, following my arguments above, gay men may well be perceived by such women as less selfish and aggressive in pursuing their own reproductive agenda: less alpha-male-like and, by that token, less likely to be unfaithful, misogynistic or exploitative – seeing women as mere brood mares. Secondly, if gay men are perceived as being more feminine than heterosexual / alpha males, women might choose this characteristic as it makes it more likely for their own feminine traits / genes to prosper and be reproduced in subsequent generations. This does not necessarily run counter to the interests of species survival, as femininity in men is not to be confused with homosexuality: gay men are often feminine but not all feminine men are gay. Therefore, when a woman chooses a gay partner, she might be choosing him for his feminine / female-friendly characteristics which, even if her partner subsequently turns out to be gay, could result in sons and grandsons who carry the feminine genes without the gayness.

In a more general sense, these scenarios suggest that unselfishness and a relative absence of procreative drive could in fact be genetic characteristics that it might be just as important to perpetuate through the generations as the self-replicating selfish gene. The perpetuation of homosexual characteristics may be one way in which humanity resists and mitigates the effects of instinctual selfishness, which has such potential to be a force for destruction in the world. Equally, it is far from clear that the alpha-male drive to spore as many offspring as possible from as many women as possible is a very desirable trait in an over-populated world where the human race appears not to have too many problems in multiplying.

It strikes me as ironic, for instance, that a country like China goes to enormous lengths to keep its population level down with policies such as one child per couple (to the extent of carrying out forcible abortions of subsequently conceived offspring), while at the same time it has a rather repressive attitude towards homosexuality. Perhaps it would be better to let men with homosexual leanings freely express their gayness, rather than applying cultural pressure on them to sire a male heir, resulting in the killing of unwanted female foetuses or, on occasions, of actual baby girls. This could be seen as an example of a culture that has traditionally sought to foster the alpha male, while at the same time, this has created a population crisis resulting in desperate and immoral measures of control.

Equally, this example suggests another way in which homosexuality could be said to serve a positive purpose with respect to species survival; and in this respect, one could say that gay men are complementary to alpha males. If a certain proportion of the population is gay, this increases the ratio of heterosexual men to women who are seeking prospective fathers for their children. This makes it easier for men to find prospective mothers and, in the case of the inveterate alpha male, multiple mothers for their children. Equally, a reduction in the number of men chasing the available ‘breeding stock’ of women could be said to reduce the probability of conflict between rival men, which might otherwise – in extreme cases – even result in the deaths of some of the alpha males. This is perhaps another example of where homosexuality can be seen as serving a ‘vocation’ to reduce the overall levels of aggression in society and to mitigate the destructiveness of the reproductive instinct.

To what extent do these evolutionary benefits of homosexuality really correspond to a vocation, and can they be said to have a providential purpose? From a Christian point of view, any real human and social benefit must be seen as an expression of divine Providence: a manifestation of God’s presence and action in the world. If you accept that the benefits from homosexuality I have discussed are indeed real, then it follows that Christians must see them as providential. This does not mean that homosexuality per se must be seen as morally good. Like many aspects of human life, it is morally neutral, and it will be judged, ultimately, in relation to how each gay or bisexual individual chose to live out their calling: as a person with homosexual tendencies and as a person made in the image of Christ.

But the fact that, to some extent, homosexuality places the individual outside the human thrall to the reproductive drive (at least, in its more obvious, selfish manifestations) is at least a reminder that we are all called to a love that transcends our own personal and, indeed, familial needs and ambitions. It also acts as a corrective to the narrower understanding of human evolution, in that it suggests that sometimes it is not always the selfish gene that prospers.

(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 7 August 2007.)