Friday, February 27, 2015

What My Year of Weight-Lifting Taught Me (Other Than How To Get a 350 Pound Bench Press)

Let me just go ahead and get this out of the way. I can now bench press 350 pounds. Letting you know that is the ultimate purpose of this blog post, and what I want you to walk away remembering. That said, here are some other things I want to say about my year-long journey with strength training and what it has taught me.

In November 2013, I got on the scale and saw that I had gone up to 220. My pants were starting to get tight, and my beer belly was getting more robust. Most of my adult life I had been around 200, so I figured now that I am in my mid-thirites this would be the new normal. Besides, a big belly is a traditional look for a preacher in the South. 

But as the days went on, I started getting more discontent with my new look. Ego concerns aside, I also really wanted to do what precious little I can to increase the probability of me being around for a good while. I agree with Woody Allen, who said he does't want to achieve immortality through his work, but through not dying. 

So I decided to start working out. Not just here or there, as I have done in the past, but I started doing some reading in fitness and nutrition, and came up with a plan. I began by focusing on restricting calories and doing lots of various kinds of high intensity interval cardio. By the beginning of February 2014, I had lost 20 pounds and about 2 inches off my waist. 

I then decided to commit myself to a fairly rigorous weight-lifting program, because, for whatever reason, I not only wanted to be as healthy as I could, I really wanted to get jacked-up. I think maybe I started going through something of a mid-life crisis, where you just feel that you need to change something. But as far as the results of mid-life-crisis-related-changes go, I figure getting more muscle is pretty good (and much cheaper than a new car). 

In the weight room, a man's manhood is measured by how big his bench press is. It is a somewhat arbitrary marker of strength (the overhead press was the main signifier of strength among bodybuilders until recently), but not entirely. While it is hard to measure a person's overall strength with just one exercise, this one comes the closest. The bench press primarily involves major muscle groups in your chest, shoulders, and triceps, while also relying secondarily on back, core, and even leg muscles. 

When I first started, my bench press maxed out at 240. That isn't horrible (especially compared to the octogenarians who work out at my local YMCA with me in the morning), but for most normal guys, a 315 pound bench press is the magic number to make you a strong man. This amount involves 3 45-pound plates on each side of the bar (which also weighs 45 pounds, if it is an Olympic bar). 



There is just something magical about having three big plates on each side that gets everyone's attention in the weight room. Of course it is an arbitrary number. But whenever someone has three plates on, we all stop and watch. It's like lifters have some sixth sense for when three big plates are on the bar. I've witnessed it so many times. It's a ritual of respect. 

So this was my goal. I desperately wanted three big plates on each side. I needed that to be a man. So fast forward 7 months. To my surprise, I had increased my bench press by 75 pounds and I had met my goal of 315. I would have been happy to end my earthly sojourn and ascend to heaven right after that lift. 

Having done that, I thought about slowing down, and be content to just try to maintain. You hear a lot of guys in the weight room say "I'm just trying to maintain." Maintaining is so much easier than gaining. But I was having fun. Why stop? Why not shoot for 400? So I kept going, and kept training hard. 

Last week, a year after my journey with serious weight-training began, I topped out at 350 pounds on the bench. 350, people!

But gaining a massive bench press isn't all I've accomplished this past year in the weight room. (Here comes the fluff that gives this piece some kind of legitimacy beyond my real intention of bragging about my bench press.) Weight-lifting has actually become a deeply spiritual practice for me. I'm certainly not the first person to draw spiritual wisdom from physical training. The apostle Paul, in several places in his letters, used athletic training to describe the spiritual path of following Christ. There's a lot to learn from pushing yourself physically that you can't learn otherwise. 

I have learned a lot about myself, and a good deal about how life works, through my year with strength training. I probably knew all of these things before, but there is something about learning them in such an embodied way that really helps you to understand them better than when they are just head knowledge. 

Here are a few of those things. 

Setbacks are part of moving forward.

This has been the most helpful lesson for me to learn. Most months my strength went up by 5-10 pounds. Some months my strength would sky-rocket. I might go up in all my lifts by 20-25 pounds on a given month. Some months I wouldn't gain anything, and a couple months I actually lost strength, even though my time in the gym and my workouts were the same. This can be very frustrating when you are working hard, and not seeing any gains. There are a number of things one can do to break through these periods. It might be a matter of overtraining, not getting the right nutrition, needing to change up workout a bit, etc. 

The most important thing, though, is to simply stick with it, trusting that if you do, the gains will in fact come. Success is measured over the long haul, and progression is rarely, if ever, a matter of continuous linear increase. 

The times in which you think you aren't making any progress are actually the times in which your body is being prepared for bigger gains in the future. 

Focus is everything.

Mental focus is actually an enormous part of weight-lifting, especially when you get into really heavy weights. In the bench press, for example, the received wisdom is to focus on one point on the ceiling and don't take your eyes off of it.  If you lose your focus, the weights really start to feel much heavier. 

I decided to experiment with this one time. I was doing a dumbbell incline bench press with 100 pound dumbbells in each hand, which I can normally do around 8-10x. I tried doing this exercise without focusing on one point, but instead letting my eyes roam around in front of me. I could only do it 4x. It was amazing to see how lack of focus made it seem so much heavier. How hard it feels is as much a function of inner focus as it is outer strength. 

You probably have more ability (and more limitations) than you think you do. 

I honestly did not think I would get to a 315 bench press. I thought I would get close and then probably give up. That's what happened about 10 years ago when I wanted to start lifting. I got up to 285 and then gave up, thinking it would be impossible to make any more gains. 

Now that I have surpassed that, to be honest, I feel like a bad ass. It's fun to see yourself do things you were convinced you probably couldn't. It's very empowering and builds confidence. I really can do more than I thought I could.

On the flip side, I have also learned that I am not invincible, and that my body is not well-suited for every kind of lift. I have pretty long legs, and horrible lower-body flexibility, especially with my hips, so the dead-lift is very hard for me. I started out dead lifting what I thought I should be able to do, not what (it turns out) I actually could in a healthy and safe way, and because of that I had several sleepless nights of back pain. In addition to severe pain, this brought me some humility and a more realistic view of what I am capable of. I really can do less than I thought I could.

Weight-lifiting is a very delicate balancing act between pushing yourself while staying within your limits. 

You don't grow if you don't challenge yourself. 

I work out at two different gyms, the student recreation center at Vanderbilt, and at a YMCA closer to our house. I have gotten to know a lot of the regulars at both over the past year. I like to watch other guys and see how they are progressing. (Not in a creepy stalker kind of a way, though. At least, I hope not.) One thing I have noticed is that most people do not make gains because they keep lifting the same weights. 

Here is the golden secret to muscle growth: you have to progressively lift heavier weights. Brilliant, huh? If you never stretch yourself, you never get stronger. If you lift the same weights every week, your body has no reason to grow new muscles. The way to lift heavier weights is to lift heavier weights. There are no short-cuts or magic training programs. You just have to add more plates on the bar over time. No matter what the latest fitness magazine says, this basic truth will never change: to grow muscles, you have to keep increasing the challenge. Or take steroids. 

Rest is as important as effort. 

No pain, no gain. There is some truth in that. You do have to put up with sore elbows, aching muscles, and so on. But if you work too hard, you actually do more damage to overall strength gains than if you did nothing at all. The human body has limits. Rest is necessary for growth. Training constantly is not wise or praiseworthy. It is foolish. Training hard releases endorphins that make you feel good (getting that "pumped" feeling can be addictive), but it also releases a lot of stress hormones, like cortisol, which can break down your body without proper rest. (I learned this the hard way.) The best gains do not come to those who work the hardest, but who to those who listen carefully to their body's need for a healthy rhythm of work and rest. 

You can't go at it alone and reach your fullest potential. 


When I first started training regularly with weights, I did it by myself. Many exercises you can do by yourself just fine, but for lifts like the bench press, (which, incidentally, I can do 350) that involve holding hundreds of pounds over your head-face-neck-chest area, it is not a good idea to do it alone. You need a "spotter" to stand behind you and help you lift it up off of you if you can't do it. Several scientific studies have shown that crushing vital organs, like your brain, lungs, or heart, is not good for overall health. 

So, despite knowing this, for the first few months I did everything by myself. I didn't want to ask someone to "spot me" because, truth be told, I didn't want them to see that I couldn't lift very much. I was too embarrassed to ask for help because I didn't want to be noticed. 

The problem with bench pressing by yourself, though, is that without a spotter you can never (safely) go all out. You have to stop lifting and get the bar re-racked while you still have some energy left. Your body has a vested interest in not being crushed, so it will tell you to stop if it thinks it is in danger of having a heavy bar dropped on it (even if it really isn't).

Once I finally realized that if I wanted to keep progressing I would need to start being more social in the gym and getting partners to lift with me, I immediately increased in how much I could lift. I remember that with the weight I was working with at the time I transitioned from solo lifting to lifting with a partner, I thought that I could only do it 4x. That is, by myself, I would do 4 reps and feel like that was the absolute limit. 

The first time I lifted with a spotter I lifted that same weight 6x. Two reasons for that: One is ego-related. If another guy is watching, you want to impress. People as narcissistic as me have extra energy stores devoted solely to impressing others. The second reason, though, is that the feeling of being supported by another person actually makes you stronger. Not just psychologically, emotionally, blah, blah, blah stronger. I mean physically, tangibly stronger. Having someone behind you can make all the difference in the world.

Finally, I can bench press 350 pounds.





Saturday, February 21, 2015

This is My Body

It has been a long time since I have read a book in one day, simply because I could not put it down. Yet, that is just what I did yesterday after getting Ragan Sutterfield's new book, This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith. In one way, it is very easy to describe this book. It is quite simply a brilliantly and beautifully written memoir and theological reflection on his journey in life so far, with a focus on how his body- and his understanding of his body- has changed through his profound and varied experiences of pain and love.

On the other hand, it is difficult to describe because it is a somewhat unique genre in the way it narrates a personal story of both physical and spiritual transformation. There are lots of books where people talk about how they underwent great physical transformation, losing weight and becoming athletic. There are also lots of books where people share their spiritual journeys, how they were changed by experiences of divine grace and love. This book does both, and in a deeply integrated way. Indeed, one of the main themes of this work is that our bodies are divine gifts and channels through which we experience God's love for us and God's delight in us. Physical training, in his case endurance training for the Ironman Triathlon, does not need to be seen as a burden to "measure up,"  but instead can be seen as a way of rejoicing in the gift of the body that God has given us.

I will not try to summarize Sutterfield's life experiences that he relates so movingly in his book. Suffice it to say, though, that he has given us the gift of a very transparent and honest window into the struggles and heartaches that most of us face in life, in some way or another. He writes with unflinching honesty about matters related to sexuality, body-image, relationships, and how our theology can affect all these things for better or worse. His vulnerable narrative, however, is suffused with an awareness of divine grace that will enable the reader, if they are willing, to be more open to seeing how God is present in their own pain and struggles.

Another unique aspect of this book is that it is largely a story about struggles with body-image written by a man, which is very rare. Not rare that a man would struggle with body-image issues, but that he would be so honest as to talk about it. As someone who was overweight in my early years, I could connect with his stories of the comments and put-downs that can stay with a person the rest of their life. I think men need more books like this, books that not only challenge you to push yourself to  experience the fullness of your physical being, but books that acknowledge the wounds and scars that come along the way.

Sutterfield's work is a moving story of how one person learned, and is learning, how to integrate body and soul through the process of experiencing divine grace through life's deep hurts and profound joys.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to think critically about the messages about the body and sexuality coming from dominant voices in culture and the church. This work, I believe, will help many people experience God and themselves in a way that will be healing to their soul and body.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hell and Torture

According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, non-religous Americans are more likely to describe the CIA's actions as "torture" and to condemn it as morally unjustified than religious Americans are. Fascinatingly, non-religious people are almost twice as likely to describe it as torture as white evangelicals

While this may seem disconcerting to many, it is not terribly surprising. After all, most evangelical Christians hold to a theological outlook that justifies the never-ending torture of much of humanity in hell at the hands of God. Indeed, one of the ways ancient and medieval church leaders justified the torture of heretics was to claim that it would be better to be tortured in this life and to be "corrected," than to die in sin and face an eternity of torture. 

Timothy Gorringe, in his 1996 book God's Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation, showed how theological views dominant in the modern West, particularly a punitive understanding of Christ's atoning work on the cross (the so-called "penal substitution" model) contributed to a harsh and retributive legal sentencing system (England in the 17th century had over 200 crimes that warranted capital punishment).

While certainly not an exhaustive account of why so many Christians support torture, it seems undeniable to me that the view of hell as everlasting punitive torture has contributed to this phenomenon. There may very well be, and probably are, thoughtful conservative Christians who both believe in such a hell and at the same time oppose human beings torturing other human beings, and I can imagine several lines of response they would give to show why God has certain prerogatives that other human beings do not have. So, I wouldn't want to claim any kind of necessary logical connection between believing in hell and supporting torture, but at the same time, it doesn't seem hard to see how such a view, especially at a popular level, would promote such an ethic of torture (or lack thereof).

Views about the afterlife matter deeply for a number of reasons, perhaps the main reason being one that is important regardless of whether you even believe in an afterlife: what people think about the world to come shapes the way they act in this world. If the God you worship is someone you claim is just, loving, and at the same time ok with tormenting much of humanity for an eternity, then that will shape the way you see justice in this life, and that will in turn affect how you think others should be treated. 

A theological outlook that makes room for a divine torturer doesn't have much problem making room for a political climate that supports human torturers. 


Friday, December 5, 2014

The Church's Intersex Cover-Up


We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world... We reexamine our ethical convictions as our understanding of the natural world increases. We find that as science expands human understanding of the natural world, our understanding of the mysteries of God’s creation and word are enhanced. - "The Natural World," in The United Methodist Book of Discipline

Approximately 1 in 2000 human beings are invisible to the eyes of the church. 

They are known as "intersex" persons. Intersex individuals are human beings who cannot be clearly and unambiguously classified as either "male" or "female." In other words, they do not have the set of reproductive, hormonal, and/or genetic characteristics that fall into the binary gender categories we normally assume. Historically, such individuals have sometimes been referred to as "hermaphrodites." 

I remember a couple of year ago when I first learned of this, that my response was one of knee-jerk disbelief. We're all conditioned to think that you are either a boy or a girl, and that these categories are exclusive and exhaustive. You have to be one or the other. 

Turns out that simply isn't true.

The existence of intersex people presents a major challenge to the church (more about that in a second), yet it is a challenge that has been virtually ignored by the vast majority of churches. It should be emphasized that this is not because of insufficient or murky scientific evidence. Unlike issues such as sexual orientation or transgender identity, where the scientific evidence is not always definitively clear or conclusive, the existence of intersex individuals is simply a scientific fact that cannot be reasonably denied. 

While it is rare, it is not so rare to to warrant the silence the church has given it. Of all the major Christian denominations, to my knowledge, only the Southern Baptist Church and the Church of England have even so much as named intersex persons in official church documents, and this is only in passing as a contrast to the issue of transgender people (intersex people have a biologically ambiguous sexual identity while transgender people "only" have a psychologically ambiguous sexual identity, according to these documents). 

United Methodist teaching nowhere mentions intersex persons (or transgender, for that matter). The Roman Catholic Church goes even further than the passive omission of most, and strongly teaches that maleness and femaleness are ontological categories, meaning that they describe the deepest essence of human beings. For all their tradition of synthesizing revelation and reason, Catholic teaching doesn't at all seem to be troubled by the fact that obvious scientific evidence undercuts these theological assertions. If "male" and "female" are exclusive and exhaustive ontological categories for humanity, that would mean that people who do not fall in these categories are in some way less than fully human. 

There is, of course, an obvious reason why churches have tended to ignore the existence of intersex persons. They call into question the gender binary that we use for the basis of numerous ethical judgments that are seen by many as essential to the Christian faith. The categories of male and female, and the assumption that they are exclusive and exhaustive, is the grounding for the ethical judgments of many churches regarding who can be ordained in the church and who can marry who in the church. Acknowledging biological complexity might force us to open up to greater ethical complexity, and that is not something many of us really want to do. 

The fundamental challenge intersex persons pose to Christian teaching is how to account for their existence theologically? The Southern Baptist Convention describes them as the result of "fallen humanity." I suppose, in that vein, one could simply view the intersex condition as a disease or disability of some kind, and thus account for it in the same way you would account for any other natural disease or disability in your theological view. The question, then, though, would be if the problem is with the intersex condition as such, or if it is really with the way we classify and stigmatize it. The problem may not be with intersex people, but with the lenses through which we see them. 

I don't have a bunch of grand solutions to the ethical and theological challenges that intersex people pose to the Christian faith. I have been helped in my reflections by Christian scholars such as Susannah Cornwall, Christine Gudorf, and Patricia Beattie Jung and would encourage folks to explore their work in their own deliberations. I am still pretty confused about many things, though, concerning the theological and ethical implications of facing up to this biological reality. 

I will also admit that my explorations into this subject have made me somewhat uncomfortable. Having your categories for arranging the world destabilized is just not very fun. (And it's only 1 in 2000, so why worry about it?) 

Then I think about Philip, and about that eunuch that he baptized (Acts 8:26-40). Eunuchs were widely seen in the ancient world as being neither male or female, but some kind of "third sex." I think about how radical the early church was to let the Spirit of Jesus destabilize and expand their categories for classifying and evaluating people. Then I wonder if that same Spirit might be calling us to do the same. 

At the very least, it's worth wondering about.

For more on the science of intersex, see Alice Dreger's TED talk, "Is Anatomy Destiny?"



Friday, November 28, 2014

The Biblical Cosmos

Many books have been written highlighting the great differences between a modern worldview and an ancient biblical worldview, if by “worldview” you mean that to refer somewhat metaphorically to a system of values, priorities, and commitments. However, concerning the gap between the ancient biblical worldview and the modern worldview, as it concerns the actual physical world we live in, there have not been many works solely devoted to exploring this great divide. Most often, this issue comes up only tangentially in works related to the intersection of religion and science.

Robin Parry’s recent book, The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful Worldof the Bible, steps into this void in a very helpful way. Parry shows us how the biblical authors saw the world very differently from us in just about every aspect of creation. By drawing on biblical texts and literature from surrounding nations in the ancient Near East, we are shown that the ancient biblical world was one where the earth was seen as a flat-disc, surrounded by water on all sides, held up by an ocean below the ground, with a solid dome over it holding back the ocean of water believed to reside just above it. God and the angels resided above the earth, while the dead resided deep in the earth’s core. While much of this is widely known, Parry also offers a compelling look into less noticed ways ancient people understood the significance of natural features such as mountains, deserts, storms, and seas.

Parry does a fine job showing how fresh and new meanings can be derived from biblical stories when we interpret them with a fuller knowledge of the way biblical authors understood the physical world and the way God relates to it. For example, the sea was seen by ancient Israelites as a source of chaos and destruction, full of monstrous threats (sometimes actual monsters, like the Leviathan). Only God, the Israelites believed, could control the waters and conquer chaos. Knowing this can bring deeper levels of meaning to several biblical stories involving water (Flood, Exodus), perhaps especially to the gospel stories of Jesus walking on the sea and calming the raging waters. A claim to the divinity of Jesus is, then, implicit in these stories. It also helps us understand why in John’s vision of the heavenly city (Rev 21), “the sea is no more.” Ultimately, all the chaotic and monstrous forces that threaten will be swallowed up in God’s final victory.

One of the more intriguing suggestions that Parry makes is that the ancient biblical writers saw the whole created order as in some sense alive, and that we might do well to consider the wisdom and truth of this approach. In the Newtonian worldview that has carried forward into recent time, we tend to see the world “mechanically,” as a lifeless, inanimate, inert machine, filled with some animate creatures such as ourselves and other animals. Parry draws on many of the Psalms, and other texts, that speak of creation as in some way responding to God (trees clapping, waters praising, etc) to suggest that perhaps the ancient biblical authors did not make the sharp divide between animate and inanimate creation that we tend to do. In their view, Parry argues, all of creation is somehow “animated.”

While he never uses this term, this view is known as “panpsychism,” and has been receiving more attention lately in some philosophical circles. While there have been several recent works that trace the development of panpsychism in Western philosophy and defend it in the context of modern mind-body debates, how this view might have been held and developed by biblical authors is a largely unexplored topic, as far as I know. I think Parry is to be commended for raising this issue, and I hope others will explore it in more detail.

In the final section of the book, Parry moves from describing the ancient biblical view of the cosmos, to offering suggestions for how modern Christians can still receive the Bible as God’s Word while not being bound to its mistaken views about creation. For example, how are we to think about the ascension? If heaven isn’t literally above us, then where did Jesus ascend? Where is Jesus’s resurrected body now? If he isn’t going to descend on clouds, what are we to think of the second coming of Christ? This are difficult topics, and while Parry can’t be faulted for not dispelling all the mystery, I do wish this section of the book would have been longer and offered us more. But I suppose that criticism speaks to the strength of the book as a whole. It is, on the whole, fun to read and full of unexpected insights, and as good books do, it leaves you wanting to know more. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Transgender and Genesis

"So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Genesis 1:27

A Text of Terror

While this verse is for many Christians a foundational declaration of human equality and sacred dignity, I imagine that for many transgender (and intersex) persons it has served as a "text of terror," to use the phrase of biblical scholar Phyllis Trible. Many Christians oppose transgender persons on the basis that they are rejecting their God-given biological identity. As a recent Southern Baptist resolution puts it, 
"God’s good design [is] that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception..."
The way this issue is framed by the SBC is representative of the way I've heard many people discuss it. (And by the way, the only reason I am picking on the SBC is because my own church, the UMC, strangely enough, doesn't even have one line in the Book of Discipline about transgender persons. Which may actually be a good thing.) On this account, being a transgender person is about letting your own psychological self-perception take precedent over biological sex, and that is dishonoring to God who created you to clearly be a male or a female person. 

Biology vs. Psychology?

This way of framing the issue, though, is problematic. While it is popular to say that "gender" (masculine and feminine) is a fluid psychological concept largely determined by culture, and "sex" (male or female) is a purely biological concept that is fixed by nature, this overlooks the fact while "sex" is a biological category, how we go about determining a person's sex is far from a biological given. Just ask Olympic's officials, who have engaged in several controversial decisions based on differences of opinion on what makes for a male or a female person. Is it chromosomes that matter? (But some intersex persons do not have the "normal" XX or XY patterns.) Is it internal reproductive anatomy that matters the most? External reproductive anatomy? Neurological structures? Hormone levels? 

"Sex" is a biological category, yes, in that it depends on biological factors, but how the decisions are made as to what really counts to determine this category is a philosophical process, not a mere biological given. Biology alone cannot tell you what biological factors count the most for what "sex" a person really is.

Why do many people assume, without argument, that chromosomal make-up and/or reproductive anatomy is more indicative of a person's "true sex" than their neurological and hormonal features? While the origins of transgender identity are not clearly understood, it seems that most would agree that it is largely shaped (if not completely determined) by mostly neurological and hormonal factors. This means it is dangerously misleading to contrast, as the SBC resolution does, one's "biological sex" with "psychological self-perception," precisely because one's psychological self-perception is largely rooted in biological factors such as hormone levels and brain structure. Transgender identity, then, isn't simply about psychology versus biology. It's about a tension or discord between different biological factors that go into sexual identity (hormones and brain structures may not match up with chromosomes and/or reproductive anatomy).

"Male and Female"

Now to the issue of how to read Genesis 1:27. Contrary to modern myths about the inevitable and ongoing conflict of science and religion (propagated by both religious and atheist fundamentalists), there is a long tradition in the church of trying to integrate scientific understanding and biblical interpretation. This means most Christian bodies have found ways to interpret the significance of Genesis for us that do not deny what science has clearly revealed, such as the fact that the earth, contrary to the assumptions of Genesis, is not a flat disc in a geocentric universe covered by a solid dome holding back waters from the heavens (Gen 1:6-8; Psalm 148:4). 

I would suggest that the new scientific information we have about transgender and intersex persons be treated in the same way as the new scientific information we have about the cosmos. How we interpret "God created them male and female" needs to accord with the best scientific understanding we have available to us. Just as the author of Genesis assumed limited and mistaken views of the cosmos (and yet God accommodated to that mistaken world view to reveal important truths), he also mistakenly assumed that biological sex determined both a heterosexual orientation and a certain gender expression. There are solid scientific reasons to now question these assumptions, and as Christians we should feel no more threatened by this than we do by Copernican cosmology. It turns out that understanding what is within us is just as difficult, if not more so, than understanding what is above us and beyond us. 

The Traditional View?

We should also be aware of how historically contingent and recent our own "traditional" views probably are on what "male and female" mean. We often take that to mean an absolute polarity, an ontological distinction, a total difference in kind. Historian Thomas Laqueur, though, in his book Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, shows that much of Western intellectual history assumed a "one-sex model" of humanity, meaning that there is basically one sex with different bodily expressions. Basically, the male is the perfect form of the human sex, and the female is an imperfect form (surprise surprise!), and her anatomy and physiology were construed accordingly: the vagina is seen as an interior penis, the womb as a scrotum, the ovaries as testicles. Women were basically understood as having inverted male anatomy. 

Sex, then, was not seen as an absolute dichotomy as many of us tend to see it, but as a spectrum of variation. This, at a minimum, should cause us to think about how on the "traditional" reading we might be importing modern cultural understandings of sex and gender into the Genesis text without even realizing it. 

Why This Is More Important Than the Universe

While I compared changes to our understanding of sex and gender to our changing understanding of the cosmos, there is one big difference. You can believe that the earth is flat, 6000 years old, the center of the universe, and all that, and you probably will not do anyone any harm (unless you have kids and make them believe that too). But if you believe that transgender or intersex people are inherently deficient because of what you think Genesis teaches, you will do a good number of people harm, either directly or, more likely, indirectly. 

You may not bully or beat up a transgender person, but you will help contribute to a culture that stigmatizes such persons, making them more susceptible to violence of various kinds. While violence against transgender people can't be blamed solely on Christian teaching, it also can't be denied that our teachings on this matter have often functioned as the soil in which seeds of hatred and violence have grown.

In short, we have a long history of adapting biblical understanding to scientific discovery. There is no reason to stop it now, and 226 reasons from this past year to keep it moving forward. 


Monday, November 17, 2014

The Parts Don’t Fit: Robert Gagnon and Anatomical Complementarity

Robert Gagnon's 2001 work The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics has become the standard for the conservative Christian case against same-sex marriage, and rightly so. Dr. Gagnon has more research and publication in this area than anybody else I am aware of, and his work is more heavily documented and cited than most that write on this subject. Also, his logic is often fairly tight (though not always, as I will argue) and his responses to several of the standard pro-gay arguments are incisive. 

Most significantly, I think Gagnon is right to challenge the frequently made argument from progressive Christians that the moral debate really comes down to the issue of the new information we have about sexual orientation. In Paul's day, it is argued, they didn't know about how some people were innately inclined to be attracted to people of the same sex. Instead, they attributed homosexual desire to excessive heterosexual lust. In other words, because you had an insatiable lust for sex, people of the opposite sex get boring and so you start having sex with people of your own sex. 

That account of the origins of homosexual desire was probably the dominant understanding in Paul's day. However, as Gagnon and others have pointed out from various ancient literary references, there was also some awareness that, for some people at least, same-sex desire was congenital and exclusive. In other words, there was some kind of ancient recognition of what we refer to as a sexual orientation. (This point is also made by several gay affirming scholars. Gagnon has good references to these.) The fact that some people are innately and exclusively attracted to people of the same sex was probably not totally unfamiliar to Paul. Granted, there are important differences between ancient and modern understandings of the origins of sexual orientation, these are not clearly and obviously morally significant differences.

I think that it is pretty clear that, as an historical judgment, the apostle Paul would likely have disapproved of any and every type of same-sex relationship. I think this much should be granted to the conservative case. This is why I think some of the incessant wrangling over exactly what malakoi and arsenakoitai meant are irrelevant to the larger issue (1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10). Even if, as liberal Christians argue, in using these terms Paul probably only explicitly condemned specific types of same-sex behaviors that were most prominent in his day (such as prostitution, sex with slaves, or sex with prostitutes), that doesn't mean therefore that he would have approved of non-exploitative or non-coercive forms of same-sex behavior. We have no record of any ancient Jew approving of such relationships, or any reason to think Paul would have differed from them in this regard.

I don't think the crux of this debate should center on the orientation question, as important as that issue is in some ways. I think the debate needs to focus on, regardless of Paul's understanding of the origin of same-sex desires, exactly why Paul would have condemned same-sex relationships and if that moral reasoning is still applicable to Christians today

That he would have condemned all same-sex relationships seems clear to me.
Why he would have condemned them is the important question.

Before going any further, I know some Christians would react here by saying that once you have figured out what Paul said, you need go no further. What Paul said is what God inspired him to say, so case closed. You don’t need to figure out his moral reasoning and test whether it still applies to Christians. He taught it, therefore God taught it.

In response, it is important to note that such Christians who would make this response likely do so inconsistently. Take slavery, for example. We know exactly what Paul taught. He taught, at a general level, that slaves should be submissive to masters, although in some particular situations, he encouraged slaves to seek freedom if they could (of course, who wouldn’t encourage that). But why did he teach a general ethic of submission? Is it because God ordained the institution of slavery, or is it because he had to work within the cultural context in which he lived? Most Christians would now go with the latter, and argue that his moral reasoning that slaves should submit is not universal and timeless, but was bound to a culture in which there was no reasonable chance of overturning the institution of slavery, but instead of just having to work to spread the gospel within it.

Gagnon himself acknowledges that not of all Paul’s moral reasoning is universally applicable, such as Paul’s argument that it is unnatural and degrading for a man to have long hair (1 Cor. 11:14). He affirms that, “the inferences Paul draws from nature have to be evaluated on a case by case basis.” (BHP, 378) So, the idea of examining Paul’s moral reasoning to see if it is timeless and universal, or if it is bound by objectionable cultural assumptions, is one that is endorsed by Gagnon himself, and is in practice employed by most Christians today.

According to Gagnon, two of the probable reasons that Paul (and other first century moralists, particularly late Stoics and Hellenistic Jews) would have condemned all same sex relationships as "unnatural" are because they are inherently non-procreative and because they violate the natural gender hierarchy.  

Regarding the procreative norm, many of the Greek and Jewish intellectuals of Paul’s day made procreation central to their sexual ethics. The rational way to live is in accordance with nature, and nature teaches (so they taught) that the only rational purpose of intercourse is procreation. It isn’t that sexual pleasure was necessarily condemned as inherently bad, but it was bad to seek mere sexual pleasure, that is, sexual pleasure outside of procreative possibility/intent.

Regarding the “natural” gender hierarchy, in the ancient world, it was generally considered natural for men to be superior/active and women to be inferior/passive, and these stratified gender roles were reinforced in the sexual relationship. The man was to be on top, literally and figuratively. Same-sex relationships, therefore, were unnatural in that they did not conform to this natural hierarchy, specifically by degrading a man by lowering him to the status of a "receptive/passive" woman. 

While Gagnon thinks these two reasons probably played some role in Paul's negative ethical view of same-sex relationships, he is clear that he does not think that Paul's case against same-sex relationships rests primarily, and certainly not exclusively, on these two reasons. He acknowledges that the anti-woman views expressed in ancient denunciations of male same-sex behavior are offensive, and that procreative ability need not be considered necessary for a legitimate marriage in today's world (BHP, p.181). 

So while these factors played a role, you can disagree with patriarchy and procreationism (as many Christians today do, even many of those who do not affirm same-sex relationships), and still have a solid reason for rejecting same-sex relationships, a reason which actually forms the heart and soul of Paul's rejection of all same-sex relationships. What is this reason?

Gagnon refers to it as "anatomical complementarity,” which refers to the “fittedness of the male penis and the female vagina” (BHP, p.181). The idea of anatomical complementarity is the thread that runs throughout all of Gagnon’s work, and it is the moral reasoning he believes was ultimately behind Paul’s condemnation of all same-sex relationships.  It is why Christians today should still condemn such relationships. It is God’s clue in nature for all to see that men and women, and only men and women, were made to go together sexually.

Was this really Paul’s moral reasoning though? Gagnon argues in two ways that it was. First, he argues that this moral reasoning was prevalent throughout Judaism in Paul’s time. Here is where things get really interesting, though. In the chapter of his book where he discusses the context of early Judaism (Chapter 2), he has a section entitled “Gender Discomplementarity” (p.169-176). This section, however, really encompasses two distinct kinds of gender discomplementarity: that which refers to the violation of the naturally established hierarchy of gender and that which refers to the violation of anatomical complementarity.

He cites several ancient Jewish texts in this section that are intended to support his claim that ancient Jewish moralists believed same-sex relationships are wrong because they both socially degrade a man (reducing him to the status of a woman) and because they rebel against the anatomical complimentarity that God intends for the sexes. Yet, none of the texts that Gagnon actually cites have anything to do with a supposed concern with anatomical complementarity. They all emphasize the wrongness of the “effeminizing” effect of male same-sex relationships on the “passive” partner. Anyone can read this section and see that he fails to provide one example of an ancient Jewish writer who focused on the shapes of penises and vaginas.

This omission is very important, since it is at the heart of his case. (On this point, see James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 243). Interestingly, Gagnon prefaces some of these ancient Jewish quotations in this section by saying that the authors are “alluding in general to the blatant transgression of male-female anatomical complementarity, and in particular to the feminization of the male gender that occurs in the case of the passive partner.” (p. 171, italics mine) While the latter is obvious, the former “allusions” are not apparent at all. Gagnon at several points (see, for example, 364, 367) asserts that a concern for anatomical complementarity is “behind” the arguments from transgressing the gender hierarchy, but, again, provides no examples. He has a penchant for almost always bringing any discussion of ancient arguments back to anatomical complimentarity, even when there is no apparent reference to such moral reasoning at all in the texts under discussion.

This is crucial, because Gagnon will take what he sees here in these ancient Jewish writers and that let that influence how he interprets Paul’s moral reasoning. As Gagnon writes in summing up this section, “The consistent return of the arguments of the anatomical and procreative complementarity of male and female will be especially important for assessing what Paul meant when he asserted that same-sex intercourse was ‘contrary to nature,’ and for our interpretation of his words.” (BHP, 183) I don’t understand how he can refer to the “consistent return” of anatomical complimentarity arguments when he hasn’t even offered one clear example where an ancient Jewish moralist refers to it.

Here is where Gagnon needs to make a distinction and an acknowledgement. He needs to make a clear distinction between anatomical complimentarity and procreative complementarity (he often lumps them together with the unhelpful phrase “anatomical and procreative complementarity”). This distinction is needed, because there is no doubt that ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman moralists appealed to procreative complimentarity in arguing that same-sex relationships are against nature. But none of the texts he cites appeal to the anatomical genital structures, the “fittedness of the male penis and the female vagina” in the way that he does, and he needs to acknowledge that. For the ancient writers he cites, the emphasis is on procreation particularly, not complimentary genital “fittedness” in general. The reason such ancient moralists would have argued the sexes are “fitted” for one another is because they made procreation central, and only a penis ejaculating in a vagina can lead to procreation. Anatomical complimentarity as a form of moral logic ultimately collapses into procreative complimentarity for ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman moralists.

Although Gagnon uses this questionable analysis of the Jewish background to argue for an influence on Paul’s thinking about anatomical complimentarity, he also makes the argument exegetically from Romans 1, insisting that Paul’s appeal to nature was an appeal to the visible structures of creation, which include the fittedness of the penis and the vagina. But, as James Brownson has argued (BGS, p.241), what the text actually says is that knowledge of God from what is visible has been suppressed, not knowledge of human things, like the shapes of penises and vaginas. The suppression of that knowledge led to idolatry, which in turn led to various forms of sexual immorality. (In ancient Jewish thinking, idolatry always leads straight to sexual immorality. Compare Romans 1 with Wisdom of Solomon 13-15).

Where does this leave us? In my view, Gagnon has not established that anatomical complimentarity was the ultimate moral logic behind Paul’s statements. Paul’s primary forms of moral reasoning for condemning same-sex relationships were, in all probability, related to first century Hellenistic Jewish assumptions about procreation as the only natural end of sex, and the natural hierarchy of genders.

It could be objected (and Gagnon has argued along these lines) that Paul recognizes the value of marital intercourse beyond procreation (in fact, he never mentions procreation in his discussions of marriage, probably because of his belief in the imminent return of Christ, making such concerns pointless), and he also appeared to have a somewhat more positive view of women than at least many of his contemporaries. But the fact remains that when Paul describes same-sex relationships as “unnatural” he was drawing on a term, not from the Old Testament, but from Greek philosophical discourse where the term always carried connotations, in sexual ethics, of the violation of patriarchal and procreative norms. Had Paul not intended to communicate those norms at least to some degree, he would have probably chosen a different word than “unnatural.”

Paul’s moral vision concerning sexuality, while certainly containing revelatory insight, was also limited by his cultural assumptions about what makes for “natural” sex. As we have seen, most Christians acknowledge that Paul’s assumptions about what nature teaches elsewhere concerning the expression of gender roles (1 Cor 11) is no longer binding, because there are always lots of cultural assumptions made in describing what appears to be “natural.” That also, arguably, is the case in his understanding of same-sex relationships. If we are willing to acknowledge that Paul had some limited cultural understandings about gender roles, how could he also not have some limited cultural understandings about the meaning of sexuality?

That said, I think it might be interesting, for the sake of the argument, to go with Gagnon’s claims about anatomical complementarity. Again, he argues that the fittedness of the penis and the vagina was central to Paul’s moral reasoning in Romans 1. On his interpretation, same-sex relationships represent the most egregious suppression of truth on the human level. When we turn away from God, we then blind ourselves to obvious truths that should be apparent to all, such as the obvious complimentarity of the penis and the vagina. These material structures point to God’s design in nature for sexual expression, and it is to only be between a man and a woman.

Concerning what can be inferred from the natural law reasoning of ancient Jews, Gagnon writes, "Neither the male anal cavity (the orifice for expelling excrement) nor the mouth (the orifice for taking in food) are likely candidates for what God intended as a receptacle for the male penis." (BHP, 181)

It’s interesting that in drawing together his conclusions he only addresses male same-sex intercourse (which is the focus of most of his writings), and that he specified a male anal cavity but didn't specify a male mouth, although I suspect that is what he had in mind in this sentence. In personal correspondence on the issue of Paul’s likely view of non-coital heterosexual intercourse, Gagnon wrote, “I doubt that Paul would have had a serious problem with oral sex.” But then, one wonders, why gender would even matter at all if his point is that those orifices are intended for other functions. (On that note, several body parts certainly seem intended for more than one function. That he seems to assume only one intended function seems odd.)

Here is where Gagnon has not been very clear, nor has he sufficiently seen the problem with this line of reasoning: if consistently applied, it would also condemn all heterosexual non-coital acts as well as homosexual ones. In fact, through much of church history the term “sodomy” was applied to all such inherently non-procreative sex, not just same-sex intercourse. Gagnon denies this implication, but does so very briefly and without much argument. He simply asserts that the objection “misses the point” because what can be drawn from anatomical complementarity is not that all sex must always involve penile-vaginal penetration, but that this aspect of nature simply reveals that sex is to be ordered for opposite-sex couples, not same-sex couples (BHP, 365).

This is a highly selective and tendentious reading of the principle of anatomical complementarity. It certainly isn’t the way the principle has been articulated throughout most of church history. Any sex that is not open to procreative potential has traditionally been condemned by this logic, and still is by the Roman Catholic Church. (To be precise, Roman Catholic teaching doesn’t necessarily forbid all non-coital sex in marriage, but it stipulates that the consummation of the sex act-for the man- must take place through coital sex.)

So, it seems that if one were to accept the moral logic of anatomical complementarity in a thoroughly consistent way, one would be led to adopt the Roman Catholic teaching regarding heterosexual relationships as well. There is no non-arbitrary way to use the principle of anatomical complementarity to condemn all same-sex intercourse, while at the same time not using it to condemn all intentionally and inherently non-procreative intercourse in heterosexual relationships. While the Roman Catholic teaching on this matter is wrong, I believe, at least it is consistently wrong. The teaching of Gagnon (and most conservative Protestants) on this point strikes me as both wrong and inconsistent. The parts of the argument simply do not fit together.