An Open Letter to Michael Rea and the SCP, from a Worried Gay Philosopher

(Editor’s note: A philosopher who is not associated with this blog asked if we would publish his thoughts about the recent SCP controversy. They are produced below).

If you’re reading this, you’re surely aware of the commotion caused by Richard Swinburne’s recent address to the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP). I wasn’t there, but as I understand it, Swinburne’s jarring conclusion was that homosexual sex is immoral, for reasons independent of those typically offered by Natural Lawyers and their sympathizers. Predictably, philosophers who disagree with Swinburne’s view publicly expressed their outrage. As a result, the President of the SCP, Prof. Michael Rea, released a statement in which he implied that Swinburne’s talk threatened the SCP’s goals of facilitating diversity and inclusivity.

Prof. Rea seems like a really nice guy, but his response leaves me feeling cynical and wearied. I’m an openly gay philosopher at a top-five program, and these issues are terribly important to me because I struggle daily to reconcile my sexuality with my faith. This stuff makes a difference to how I might lead my life, a phenomenon that is sadly rare in contemporary analytic philosophy. If a philosopher like Richard Swinburne has something to say, I need and want to know. I want to lead a Christian life, and I’ve grown to think that means living a celibate one. I’m not sure though! I want more debate. So, please, don’t scare any dissident philosophers away from the podium. Unfortunately, apologizing for someone who presents controversial moral views and implying that they hinder the SCP’s goals of diversity and inclusivity may (even if unintentionally) do just that.

I ask this not because views like Swinburne’s are without cost. When I read arguments like Swinburne’s, my heart sinks a bit because I worry that they might be sound. I miss my last boyfriend and sometimes regret telling him I couldn’t ever marry him in good faith because I suspect gay marriage to be incoherent and gay relations immoral. It’s f*cking rough. But, for all that, please don’t protect my feelings. For, as philosophers, our vocation is the pursuit of truth and the virtuous life—and that’s surely worth the sweat and tears.

A note about being a gay orthodox Christian in philosophy: As I mentioned, I’m open about my orientation, and I’ve never encountered even a shred of homophobia, neither at my current institution nor at the conservative Christian one I attended as an undergraduate (of course, I don’t intend to speak for other LGBTQ philosophers). But if ever I move to another institution, I don’t know whether I will be openly Christian, or at least not openly an orthodox one, and I certainly won’t be openly politically conservative. Not until I get tenure. At a previous institution, one philosopher changed offices rather than share with the department’s token Evangelical. The cur had recently published on the immorality of homosexuality, you see. At my current university, one philosopher told me she would “never be friends with a conservative,” because anyone worth the trouble would long since have abandoned such odious views. Those were her words, uttered sincerely and unironically. We’re bigots, you see. It will be awkward if she ever realizes her gay confrere voted for Romney for his positions on social issues. (So, if any of you have figured out who’s writing, please be discreet. Until I get tenure. Then hoist the goddam Jolly Roger.)

Prof. Rea, I know you’re trying to help. Perhaps you think that if our secular friends just see us as compassionate people, they’ll be nice. Who knows, maybe they’ll take us more seriously and even convert some day! If that’s your attitude, I don’t think it’s stupid. I don’t even really think it’s wrong. Truly. Most philosophers I know are basically tolerant of ideological diversity, at least to a point. Certainly, once they get to know us they’re great company. Or maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe you think that a weird lecture from an elderly Brit really does cut people deeply. Either way, beware that publically slapping Swinburne’s hand has costs. If you shut down conversation, even in a nice, veiled way—while protesting that you’re not formally cutting off anyone’s microphone—you deprive people like me of whatever the next brilliant, wise Christian philosopher has to say about something that matters deeply. The gay Christians I know need to have this conversation (and there are more of us than one might guess). We have two dogs in this fight, as it were. Let them fight it out. Please, take pity on us, and leave Richard Swinburne alone.

Natural Lawyer

Natural Lawyer is the lead editor of Rightly Considered. He teaches philosophy somewhere in the southwestern United States.

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  1. This will be amazing to look back on when you get tenure, sir. And God bless you for your courage and intellectual honesty as you grapple with yourself, and may He provide you strength to do what you believe to be right.

    As a conservative in an English university myself I have had experience of, at least, your conservative struggle! I’m not sure I want to “come out” when conversation takes a liberal turn. I might need their references someday, who knows? Just today it was announced in a lecture by a professor I deeply respect that a certain popular conservative position, and my own view, was held without any evidence and only by the stupid.

  2. “A note about being a gay orthodox Christian … .” Sorry, but there’s no such thing, just as there’s no such animal as a “pacifist serial killer.” God deliver us. 🙁

    • Did you read the post? He is gay in the sense that he has an attraction towards members of the same sex, but he recognizes that it’s immoral to act on that attraction.

    • Nowhere did he claim to be celibate, and the equivocal word he chose to describe his attitude re gay sex was that he SUSPECTS it to be incoherent and immoral. To remain celibate you need more than a suspicion of what you are doing may be wrong; you need a CONVICTION. Clearly that conviction is absent, or why would he be complaining about SCP censorship?

    • This is why many Christians who struggle with this issue – myself included – prefer not to use loaded terms like “gay”, “bi” or “lesbian” to describe themselves. Saying “I’m gay” these days is mostly equivalent to saying “I’ve embraced a lifestyle of homosexual relationships and activity” and this may not accurately reflect the person in question. It is far more cumbersome to say “I’m a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction but have chosen not to act on those desires because of what I believe the bible teaches”, but at least it avoids misunderstandings.

    • There is such a thing as a pacifist serial killer. Is it possible for what you believe and how you behave to be at odds with each other.

      Also ‘gay orthodox Christian’ and ‘pacifist serial killer’ are not equivalent. Both pacifist and orthodox Christian are defined by a belief. However, to be a serial killer requires committing a certain action, but to be gay does not. You do not have to have to have same-sex relations to be gay, unless of course you are claiming that every virgin in the world currently has no sexual orientation at all, but you do actually need to kill people to be a serial killer. Or are you defining ‘gay’ as a description of someone who embraces contemporary western gay culture?

    • Billy, I reject your claim that orthodox Christians “are defined by a belief.” Not according to James (1:22), Paul (2 Cor 5:17), John (1 Jn 1:6), and Jesus (Jn 8:31). A Satanist can hold orthodox Christian beliefs, but that does not make them a “Christian.” The writer of the letter did not claim to be a celibate or a virgin. he claimed to be “an openly gay philosopher” who was missing his boyfriend. And how does someone who has never had gay sex qualify as “gay?” Are you saying anyone who has ever fantasized about some type of gay sex *is* gay? That would leave very few heterosexuals out there. Your criticism amounts to pretty thin grool, Billy. 🙁

  3. Is it risky for conservatives at top programs to publish unpopular views even under pseudo-name. There are not a lot of such people so they maybe can be traced. I wonder how much conservative views lower someone chances in academia? I think it is interesting subject for some blog posts.

  4. “But if ever I move to another institution, I don’t know whether I will be openly Christian, or at least not openly an orthodox one, and I certainly won’t be openly politically conservative. Not until I get tenure.”

    This pretty much sums up everything wrong with modern academia. Tolerance for all except those who dare disagree with us.

  5. This is an excellent post, genuinely Christian and genuinely philosophical, seeking after the true and the good. I applaud your courage, honesty and discipline in leading a celibate lifestyle because you believe that is where a true evaluation of the arguments point (I happen to agree with you in this, although, not having your orientation, I don’t have to live with anything like your struggle. That said, there is a temptation for anyone to just fold to societal pressure and say that Christianity and homosexuality are compatible to avoid being thought a monster. But, having read in particular Rob Gagnon’s work, like you I don’t think that is where the arguments lead). I pray that God will guide you and bless you. Ignore the knee-jerk comment above. Hope you get that tenure!

  6. @NL – I had a similar “catch” in my mind as Charlie, I think.

    I think it’s the self-identification aspect of the author. Throughout the post he weaves in his sexual preference as key to his self-identity. Would we not think it at least a tad unusual if the author identified himself as an “fornicating orthodox Christian” or an “adulterous orthodox Christian”?

    Even if he weren’t actively fornicating or committing adultery I think we’d think it strange that’s how he self-identified (by sexual preference). That’s disordered thinking for a Christian from a Biblical perspective.

    Indeed, something seems awry.

    • He cites the fact that he’s gay for the purposes of this post because that’s clearly relevant to the present controversy. There’s nothing awry about this post.

    • I don’t think “I’m a gay (but orthodox) Christian” need be interpreted as substantially different in any way from “I’m an X-prone (but orthodox) Christian” where X is some specific sin in question that I am particularly prone to. “Gay” is meant here as an orientation, tendency, or inclination, and not as implying that I do any particular action.

      The Catholic Church speaks of homosexual persons for instance; cf. “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”: They do not mean by this “persons who engage in homosexual acts,” but rather “persons who are prone or inclined toward such acts.”

      To that extent, your “fornicating orthodox Christian” or your “adulterating orthodox Christian” are not analogous.

    • IO said: “To that extent, your “fornicating orthodox Christian” or your “adulterating orthodox Christian” are not analogous.”

      I think I addressed that objection in my original comment when I said:

      “Even if he weren’t actively fornicating or committing adultery I think we’d think it strange that’s how he self-identified (by sexual preference). That’s disordered thinking for a Christian from a Biblical perspective.”

    • I think that rather depends, doesn’t it, on how this guy identifies as gay. If indeed it is his fundamental identity, more important than anything else, that would be at odds with Christianity. But, since he’s obviously struggling with the issue, and open to going against his attraction, we can conclude that he’s at least open to his Christian identity being the fundamental one. I think that’s enough evidence to be charitable here and not read his identifying as gay as revealing his fundamental psychological or spiritual identity, no?

    • You are of course correct; there is something “awry’ about the letter writer’s claim of being both a “gay orthodox Christian” AND an “openly gay philosopher.” Even if we stipulated that he is now a celibate–a claim he never makes–how could you signal to the world your utter contempt for traditional Christian teachings (“I’m … openly gay”) and still claim that you a “Christian” of any kind? No, this fellow is like the Rich Young Ruler, who wanted to follow Jesus–so long as no major sacrifice was required. Hopefully he will repent and not share in the RYR’s fate.

  7. *I apologize if I’m multiple posting, I think perhaps my device isn’t working correctly*

    **I’m addressing IO’s response in a separate comment because replies on my device’s screen get narrower and compressed on the right side of the combox as the thread extends**

    Perhaps, but I wonder if Professor Swinburne had lectured on the disordered and immoral nature of incest (homosexual or heterosexual) and the guest post were penned by a self-identifying “incestuous orthodox Christian” if the responses would be the same.

    It’s also perhaps worth noting the author does not claim to be celibate, but rather claims to be *thinking* that abstinence from engaging in homosexual relations might be the moral course (celibacy).

    Lastly it’s perhaps worth noting, since after all we’re talking about Christianity, that the Bible and historic Christianity have viewed taking God’s name in vain (a.k.a. blasphemy), and “course language” (the use of which is specifically forbidden, although there’s no list of “bad words” given) rather dimly and as unbefitting of Christ’s people, yet the author drops a couple of doozies in his post as throwaway exclamation points. I know this probably seems puritanical and petty to some people, but for others these facts simply act as additional marks which just don’t square with Scripture’s account of what a renewed Christian life looks like.

    I’m concerned about the man’s soul, because it seems highly plausible that he’s been given false assurances of what it means to be an actual Christian.

  8. @F – I can’t find the equivalents in Paul’s writings of the aforementioned “doozies”, but again as I pointed out those were secondary observations that when added to the problematic self-identity are cause for spiritual concern for the man, and the wisdom of self-examination.

    That doesn’t seem even a little controversial to me.

    @IO – I read through the Rightly Considered bios and didn’t see anyone self-identifying as “gay orthodox Christians”, but in case some are then yes the same concern would apply.

  9. Looks like I started a stimulating discussion here! It seems NL’s alleged celibacy is the sticking point. Strange, especially as he never claimed to be celibate, and only admitted to thinking that he probably should be.

    NL said, “I miss my last boyfriend and sometimes regret telling him I couldn’t ever marry him in good faith because I suspect gay marriage to be incoherent and gay relations immoral.” Sounds to me like this boyfriend wanted a much more serious relationship than NL was interested in, nothing more, nothing less. NL’s guilty conscience nagging him re the immorality of his lifestyle was another good reason for dumping him. But nowhere do we read NL saying, “That is why I no longer engage in gay sex.” Nowhere.

    Once again, NL said, “I’m an openly gay philosopher.” If someone had chosen to become a celibate because they had recently become convinced homosexual sex is sin, why on earth would they wish to signal to the entire world they were still committing this sin, in “open” defiance of their faith? Makes no sense at all.

    Once again, NL said, “When I read [anti-homosexual] arguments like Swinburne’s, my heart sinks a bit because I worry that they might be sound.” If you were already convinced homosexuality was a sin, and you were successfully leading a celibate life—not just *thinking* about leading one—why would Swinburne’s lecture cause your heart to “sink?” If you had given up drinking Indian tea some time ago because you believed it would be bad for your health and a health authority announced Indian tea was indeed carcinogenic, would your heart “sink” because you could never again do what you had already given up or would you feel relieved that your sound instincts an intellectual honesty had spared you a health disaster?

    Sorry, but 1 Cor 6:9-10 and 1 Tim 1:10 assure us there is simply no such animal as a “(sexually active) gay orthodox Christian.”

    • Natural Lawyer isn’t the author of this letter. The letter was sent to us by someone who isn’t associated with this blog.

    • Thanks for the correction. You may wish to put the box directly under the letter elsewhere to avoid confusion.

    • Thanks, but we clarified this at the beginning of the post:

      (Editor’s note: A philosopher who is not associated with this blog asked if we would publish his thoughts about the recent SCP controversy. They are produced below).

  10. Dear “Worried Gay Philosopher,”

    Sexual temptation and sexual sin can be a monster, regardless of who or what one desires. It might be of comfort to hear the testimonies of other believers who have renounced a gay or lesbian lifestyle. If you’ve not done so, you might check out the documentary, “Such Were Some of You.” There are clips of it on Youtube. You might also read work by folks like Doug Mainwaring, Roberto Oscar Lopez, and Christopher Yuan who have left the gay lifestyle and have either remained celibate or are married to women. A good place to start would be Mainwaring’s article, “It’s Possible: Gays and Lesbians Can Have Happy Marriages.”

    Also, since you’re a philosopher, and since you wanted reasons not to engage in homosexual conduct, here’s an argument that differs somewhat from the one Swinburne gave. I’ve not seen it defended quite this way in the literature, but I think that it is among the most powerful.

    1) Biologically-speaking, when any part of an organism (such as a trait or organ or faculty) has a proper function, its proper function is to do something that tends to preserve the life of the organism, or to do something that tends to preserve that organism’s species. (Cf. Peter McLaughlin [2001], What Functions Explain and Peter Graham [2014], “Warrant, Functions, History”)

    2) The human libido, qua biological entity, has the proper function of motivating one to find and reproduce with a biologically suitable mate.

    3) If a person’s libido tends to motivate them to desire someone (or some thing) that is clearly not a biologically-suitable mate, or if it motivates them to view a non-suitable being or object as if it were a fitting object of one’s sexual energies, then that libido is not functioning properly.

    4) Same-sex attraction is a state in which one’s predominant (or perhaps sole) sexual desire is for those of the same sex as oneself.

    5) Same-sex attraction is an instance of (though not the only type of instance of) a malfunctioning libido.

    6) Our moral faculties, qua biological entities, function properly when they motivate us to (i) approve of actions, dispositions, or events that tend to promote human survival and reproduction and (ii) disapprove of actions, dispositions, or events that tend to inhibit human survival and reproduction.

    7) Homosexual conduct does not tend to promote human survival and reproduction; if anything, it tends in the opposite direction.

    8) A properly-functioning moral faculty will, ceteris paribus, tend to generate moral disapproval of homosexual conduct and moral approval of certain kinds of heterosexual conduct.

    9) Homosexual conduct is probably immoral.

    Note that there are really two separate arguments here. Premises (6) through (9) provide a metaethical basis for thinking that homosexual conduct is immoral, and premises (1) through (5) stand on their own to furnish an entirely prudential reason not to trust your sexual desires. The prudential argument is further strengthened by noting relevant parallels in the psychology literature. For example, people with certain forms of pica crave non-food objects (e.g., couch cushion foam, bars of soap, dryer lint, white out, tar, gasoline, etc.) as if they were food. In cases like this, it seems readily apparent that their gustatory faculties are not functioning properly, and that they should try to resist rather than act on their desires. Likewise, given how complex human persons are, it comes as no surprise that some people have a malfunctioning sex drive that is causing them to desire non-appropriate objects of sexual affection as if they were appropriate.

    “And this I pray: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God.”

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