January 6, 2012
Is homosexuality “natural?” Or is it to be viewed as sinful because it is “unnatural?” For some people, this appears to be the nub of the matter. It even appears that Paul is one who views homosexuality as “unnatural” in that much focused-upon passage in the first chapter of Romans. Paul says, “26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” What Paul is saying here about homosexuality and its ‘naturalness’ are both far from clear to me, but I’ll come back to that. Instead, let’s start with the question of whether “homosexuality” is “natural.” What does it mean to say something is natural or unnatural? And when (if ever) does saying that something is “unnatural” carry moral force? That is, when, if ever, does unnatural=bad or unnatural=wrong?
It can’t be correct to say that something is unnatural if it is merely uncommon. We may think four-leaf clovers or total eclipses of the sun are uncommon, but we hardly think them unnatural for that reason.
Rather, I think we generally consider something natural if it is either inherent or immutable, or if it occurs without human intervention. Is it something we can observe “in nature” or “in the wild” without human beings having done something to make it so? In this sense, plastics, Velveeta cheese, airplanes, and playing cribbage are all unnatural. We wouldn’t have them without human ingenuity. And of course we could make an enormously long list of such objects or practices that we humans have figured out how to do or to make.
Are such unnatural things bad or wrong because they are the fruits of human activity? Hardly. I don’t like Velveeta, but its unnaturalness is not what repels me, it’s the taste and the unhealthy consequences of eating too much of it.
Conversely, there are naturally occurring things that I don’t much like – things that occur “in nature” or “in the wild” that I’d rather avoid: poison ivy, mosquitoes, salmonella, cancer. The naturalness of these things is no argument for their goodness, moral or otherwise.
So what if anything does all this say about homosexuality? Does it occur “in nature,” without human intervention? Is it an inherent condition rather than a chosen one? There is now a formidable body of biological evidence that homosexuality occurs frequently (and in quite varied ways) in the animal kingdom. Over four hundred species of vertebrates (including, but not just humans) show evidence that some individuals engage in same-sex sexual relations. The case for homosexuality as something that occurs “in nature,” without human interference or choice, has become overwhelming.
Does this make homosexuality right? Is this a moral argument in favor of homosexuality? No: whether something is natural is not an indicator of whether something is morally right. We are, however, talking about an inherent characteristic of some human beings, and it is an immutable characteristic. The American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and many other professional associations have reviewed the evidence and issued clear statements that homosexuality is normal — not a disorder that calls out for treatment. They have stated that efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation are unlikely to succeed and likely instead to cause depression, anxiety or self-destructive acts, even suicide.
Here, for example, is a 2006 statement from the American Psychological Association: “For over three decades, the consensus of the mental-health community has been that homosexuality is not an illness and therefore not in need of a cure. The APA’s concern about the positions espoused by NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) and so-called conversion therapies is that they are not supported by the science. There is simply no sufficiently scientifically sound evidence that sexual orientation can be changed. Our further concern is that the positions espoused by NARTH and Focus on the Family create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish.”
The naturalness of homosexuality (and it certainly is natural for some human beings) is a red herring in any argument for the morality of homosexuality. It’s a red herring because knowing the “naturalness” of something is of little help in knowing its moral goodness.
It’s even a red herring in Paul’s argument in Romans. In Romans 1, Paul is discussing idolators who turn their backs on God. Paul is talking about what their idolatry leads them to: “shameful lusts.” Those lusts are shameful because these idolators chose to act against their true (heterosexual) natures. They gave themselves up to wanton passion rather than acting out of committed love. These idolators weren’t true to their best selves.
In Romans, sometimes Paul uses “natural” in a way that seems to be a synonym for “good.” At other times, he talks of our “sinful nature” (Romans 7:17,25). Moreover, translation can be tricky here: more than one Greek word is translated as “nature” or “natural” in various translations of the Bible into English.
Sometimes, I suppose, people say something is “unnatural” to mean that it is “against God’s will.” If so, then let’s talk about what God asks of us, rather than confusing the matter with talk about “naturalness.” For Christians, that will require us to weigh the five ambiguous Bible passages against the blazingly clear Gospel message of love and redemption. We need to remember that Jesus calls us to act against our natures: He calls us to give up our all-too-natural propensity to selfishness. He calls us, instead, to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as ourselves.