Yesterday, I gave Richard Swinburne, the famous Oxford Christian philosopher, a piece of my mind. As one of the keynotes of the Midwest Meeting of Society of Christian Philosophers, he referred to homosexuality as a "disability" and a "incurable condition." While Swinburne did not think homosexuality was intrinsically wrong in the same way that adultery was wrong, he argued (if that’s the right verb under some principle of charity) that homosexuality was extrinsically wrong. Homosexuality was a disability in the lacking of the ability to have children, and God’s commands of abstaining from homosexuality might prevent others from fostering this incurable condition in others.
Yeah. I know.
My response was mixture of abhorrence and overwhelming anger, and I tried as I might to encounter this idea calmly. I told him he medicalized being gay in the same way that phrenology medicalized racism. It was obnoxious to listen to Christians lay claim to sacrificial love at this conference, but at the same time not see the virtue of that same love as a possible quality underlying other configurations, yet I told others this is the reason why Christians should read Foucault. When you do, you start to notice how power manifests in local contexts in which those discourses occur.
There was a way power was working in this discourse. Specifically, Foucault exposes how medicalizing discourse divorces the condition apart from the body of the patient. Swinburne advocated “sympathy and not censure” for homosexuals, those with the “incurable condition” and “disability.” In this medical context, medicine acts as a way to dehumanize the person without appearing as if that’s what you’re doing*. The same is true of phrenology. One is not racist, but scientific. Here the Christians in the room weren’t being anti-LGBT. They were just being properly Christian. This is precisely what Levinas warns about in his ethics of other when someone imposes a “logic of the same” on the singularly radical other (which is also what I have claimed is relevant of Scheler’s ethical personalism elsewhere). By using the language of the medical, the clinic, Swinburne represented being gay as a condition that can be extricated from those with whom we are to have sympathy rather than complete acceptance of the other’s otherness—this is true even if he did not mean to do so. The only appropriate Christian response is complete acceptance of the other’s otherness, not the moralizing stance that parses out metaphysical distinctions which have the concrete effect of justifying the problematic patriarchal and capitalist violence on the Political Right.
As I am attending this conference, however, it’s clear that the dominant philosophical audience is Evangelical and while I do not know for sure, I heard several conversations and papers that suggested God commands morality. The fact is they are not divine command theorists as much as people think God commands what’s right, but they certainly come close if not endorsing that view (perhaps God as a moral expert, but still nonetheless “God commands”). The point is they still think doing right is abiding by commands, and this has been coupled in several conversations that Christianity is distinct in the proof as the one right and true religion. Such positions are the limit case of pluralism. In effect, I am surrounded by monists, and the Jamesian innards of my soul are made uncomfortable by just how silent the room was because of that monism or the fact they are committed to reducing the alterity of others. Consider Richard Flathman,
The limit case would be a monism in which all eaches and manys become one…in which some small number of pluralities gobble up a larger number of others. [An example] would be a theocracy featuring and supported by unanimous adherence to a single religious faith (p. 175)**
James opposed this as we should along Levinasian lines. Healthy pluralism is conducive to breeding forms of life that are tolerant of others, even if they don’t agree rather than passing off one’s belief of others as legitimate even though it is a form of violence and dehumanization. What Flathman rightly points out is that the type of Christian philosophy endorsed socially in Swinburne’s talk and perhaps implicitly is a form of absolutizing monism that diminishes the experience of the many eaches.
I stood outside the door at the end, and only one person approached me---karmically someone writing up on James, Dewey, and Peirce who approved of my comments. One other person spoke and it was clear at the end that the usage of “gift” more than likely stirred some feminist commitments in the room. Needless to say, however, despite one other, nobody spoke about the usage of such terminology nor how wrongly such thing was and how remotely un-Christian it is to hate nor to rationalize one’s own commitments in light of tradition. I think the Christianity in the room was complicit in LGBT oppression. Many were silent at this language. I was repulsed by the silence of the whole room and it’s perhaps here that such a Christianity will not survive—one that entrenches hatred with the subtle force of de-personalizing medical language. It's also clear that this rejection is also lost on those that would perpetuate the suffering of other people and try to move our culture to intolerable monism.
*I also heard the same “unnatural” garbage language of the natural law tradition was present that I’ve talked about before as I also learned that there's a deep Protestant appreciation and appropriation of St. Thomas. That was a new one for me as I don’t travel in these “intellectual” circles often.
** Richard Flathman, “The Bases, Limits, and Values of Pluralism: An Engagement with William James” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society vol. 149, no. 2 (June 2005).