A Review of Jenell Williams Paris, The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are
According to Messiah College professor, Jenell Williams Paris, "Heterosexuality is an abomination…" (43). This statement is doubtless meant for maximum effect, since the Bible declares male on male sex as "an abomination" (Lev 20:13). One is led to ask how an evangelical Christian scholar, published by a Christian publishing house (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011) justifies such a shocking formulation.
As an "abomination" Paris means the false classification of persons as merely homosexual or heterosexual, a practice she feels gives a person identity only on the basis of sexual choices or desires, rather than on their status as creatures made in God's image and loved by God (97). Paris also argues that, historically, the terms "heterosexuality" and "homosexuality" have never had to do with theology or ethics (15), but are recent "social constructions…created by people within the last two hundred years" (15). Prior to this modern period, people did not think of themselves as having sexual identities (42).
For Paris contends that the recent term "heterosexuality" has produced a "heterocentrist theology" that "breeds hierarchy, moral superiority and inauthenticity," making the term "not a good enough value to prize, seek after and organize life around" (107) since it has hurt homosexuals. When Christians use the term to condemn "homosexuality with such vehemence,…[they] have arguably contributed to the cementing of sexual desire as central to human identity" (70). Christians, having bought into the sexual identity framework, engage in an unhealthy obsession with wanting to change the sexual orientation of homosexuals (99).
So, what would renewed Christian minds look like? According to Paris, we need minds that are "calm…about sexuality," minds that will, with "maturity" (78), "stop searching for moral law and moral judgments." Such maturity rejects "rigid sexual dimorphism (or binary sex categories)…[like] male and female," for such categories, though they "seem to reflect the binary pattern of creation,…are [mere] cultural creations." (31) This non-binary, non-judgmental approach will produce the desirable mature Christian community with no sexual labels, in which "we no longer judge people on the basis of their sexuality, for we will never agree on sexual ethics and what are divergent sexual practices" (144).
"The burden of this book is to "humanize" the homosexual neighbor, a burden shared by the Apostle Paul, who calls not the homosexual but himself "the chief of sinners", who ministers to homosexuals (as evidenced in their presence in his churches) – and who adds to his condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1:26-28 a long list of other sins . Paul shows us that Christians may never be moralizers!"
With the advent of sexually neutral Christian communities and the general abandonment of the terms heterosexual and homosexual (and thus of this false, dehumanizing "sexual identity framework”), we can optimistically hope that the recently created problem of sexual identity will pass as quickly as it came. All in all, the future looks bright.Evaluation
The burden of this book is to "humanize" the homosexual neighbor, a burden shared by the Apostle Paul, who calls not the homosexual but himself "the chief of sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15), who ministers to homosexuals (as evidenced in their presence in his churches – 1 Corinthians 6:9), and who adds to his condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1:26-28 a long list of other sins (Romans 1:29-32). Paul shows us that Christians may never be moralizers!
Paris succeeds as an observant anthropologist in showing the numerous variations and complexities of sexual desire and practice in today's world and, as an obviously caring Christian woman, focuses on love rather than judgment (8). She rightly shows deep respect for all human beings, whatever their sexual orientation, and wants to avoid the self-justifying moralism that "God-hates-fags Christians" unfortunately exemplify.Critique
In spite of these noble intentions, however, Jenell Williams Paris’s analysis is largely unsuccessful and, in my view, pastorally harmful. The present acceptance of homosexuality among young believers, threatens the future Christian community with moral and spiritual relativism that will lead it eventually into full-blown religious paganism.
The crucial nature of the moment which we are living is illustrated by the website, OneWheaton.com. Wheaton College, one of the academic pillars of Christian orthodoxy, now faces head-on the issue of homosexual students in its midst. The goal of this unofficial site, OneWheaton.com, is to support LGBTQ students at Wheaton College, as do (according to the website), "similar alumni movements ... at other Christian universities." The site states its intent to counter “prevailing ideas about homosexuality in the Wheaton community”:
Though the statement of Wheaton College President Ryken, in “affirm[ing] the full humanity and dignity of every human being, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” seems to express the goal of Paris's book, she really wants more. She wants a "post-sexual-identity church" that refuses all sexual labels. But faced with the kind of thought-through pro-gay Christian morality now appearing at places like Wheaton, the Paris ideal will surely not halt the tsunami of theological legitimization of homosexual practice in the evangelical church; indeed, it may contribute to the tide.A Dubious Interpretation of the Recent History of Sexuality
The author’s read of recent history to explain the present conflict over sexuality in the culture and in the church is, at best, confusing and ambiguous and, at worst, plain wrong.
"The author’s read of recent history to explain the present conflict over sexuality in the culture and in the church is, at best, confusing and ambiguous and, at worst, plain wrong."
The approach, as she admits, was born from embarrassment. Her lesbian friend, Sarah, took her to a gay bar and there posed the question: "Does Christianity really condemn homosexuality?" Embarrassed, especially in that context, she eventually sought a more acceptable, non-judgmental answer in anthropology's understanding of "social construction." Anthropology enabled her to identity not a sinful pattern of homosexual behavior but a sinful pattern of worldly, inauthentic categorization, from which all Christians should be transformed (Romans 12:2)." This, she came to believe, was the real problem, and the way forward was to understand the present sexual impasse as an issue of false categories (8).
There are numerous problems with the Paris approach. To begin with, her identification of the historical moment when this crucial change in definition occurred varies widely. She speaks of "a hundred years" (42), of "the last two hundred years" (15), the years before 1930 and, elsewhere, the years before 1960 when the terms were in use (107). Not just her time markers but her categories are vague. During this period, however long it was, she affirms that the concepts of sexuality have been changing (107). How does one measure the changes? Though she is sure that before that (ill-defined) period, people did not think of themselves as having sexual identities tied "almost entirely" to sexual feelings or orientations (107), how does one evaluate feelings that are "almost entirely " felt, in order to come up with a major reinterpretation of the modern history of sexuality? How does one read people's inner self-perceptions that are constantly changing? In spite of these imprecisions, Paris nevertheless affirms with confidence that thinking in terms of "sexual identity" is the great problem of which we should healed.
I am skeptical of the thesis that terms themselves could be so uniquely powerful and so confined to a specific moment of history that nothing before them could be like them or have comparable effects? We often grant, however, in other academic areas, that in previous ages the same ideas existed as now exist, though described by different words. For instance, Sir M. Monier-Williams, Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford, commented in 1894 about the new Darwinism:
Can we be sure that terms used prior to the advent of "homosexual," like “sodomite,””pederast,” “Sapphic,” “homophile,” “Urianian,” or “Two-Spirit,” were not used in a similar dehumanizing way?
As a matter of fact, Paris actually uses the terms on a number occasions (see pages 70, 75, 103), with no negative implication. Indeed, on two occasions she grants: 1) "it is sometimes important to be heterosexual…if using that label helps us serve others or pursue justice…but we must never live by its cultural power"(51); 2) "Following Jesus may mean we may want to reject the label of heterosexual and become 'unlabeled' in sexuality…others may wish to use heterosexuality instead of being used by it" (53).
Paris's usage here appears to undermine her whole thesis, for the terms which she claims have done so much damage are in themselves not by nature problematic.Refusal of Moral Categories—False Forbearance
The staggering truth about human beings is that we live in a moral universe, and everything has moral implications. This is surely an essential part of human dignity, over against the non-human kingdom. Of course, one should avoid judgmentalism, but we cannot and must not suspend moral judgment. For Paris, "proclaiming that 'homosexuality is a sin' is a poor representation of Christian teaching" (9) because the real problem is not morality but the dehumanizing application of social identity categories. Homosexuality cannot be judged morally (34) because scientists recognize a genetic cause (104) to homosexuality, which is not freely chosen and thus cannot be changed by a moral decision (62).
"So what should Christians do? Paris maintains that we must imitate Jesus, who said to the woman caught in adultery (John 8): "You are not condemned. Go on your way, and do not sin again" (123). In this biblical text, the sin (adultery) is named and denounced, and forgiveness is granted. While quoting this statement of Jesus, Paris misuses it because she refuses to name homosexuality as sin. The judged homosexual person just goes on his way without sin ever having been named, so no forgiveness can be granted."
So what should Christians do? Paris maintains that we must imitate Jesus, who said to the woman caught in adultery (John 8): "You are not condemned. Go on your way, and do not sin again" (123). In this biblical text, the sin (adultery) is named and denounced, and forgiveness is granted. While quoting this statement of Jesus, Paris misuses it because she refuses to name homosexuality as sin. The judged homosexual person just goes on his way without sin ever having been named, so no forgiveness can be granted.
Paris makes no moral judgment on a same sex couple raising a child (122), because she will not grant that there are objectively sinful, as over-against life-enhancing, structures. She argues, quite beside the point, that heterosexual marriage can be an occasion for pride and sin, and cannot thus serve as the norm. (One thinks of Paul’s argument, however, that people who preach Christ for selfish reasons cannot change the truth of the Gospel. It is still the power of God unto salvation. Philippians 1:15-18).
Paris advocates a naïve "leave and let live" approach, refusing to judge, and hoping that sufficient amounts of love and patience will solve all problems. She denounces the "false forbearance" of a church for a pastor involved in heterosexual sexual sin, who was protected by his congregation, which "allowed the man's sin to flourish" (121). Is she not also guilty of “false forbearance” toward homosexuals, that allows their sin to flourish? Should there be no warning of the obsessional, narcissistic and dehumanizing character of homosexuality? Will this forbearance of moral judgment bring healing, or will it feed the obsessional search for the self (the "same") and become an ingrained selfish (though spiritualized and justified) distortion of reality (see Romans 1:26)?
At a more general level, is it not the very decision to remove the terms "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" from the moral sphere that raises the specter of a mere social construct? If there are no moral categories for sexual behavior, then there are only social categories. To construe our sexuality in this manner is the clear intention of the current homosexual community, which Paris recognizes (60). It is homosexuals who want to be identified by their sex drives; it is they who frequent gay bars, claim gay liberation and gay rights, develop queer theory, and, in California, insist on gay history textbooks for all state schools. It is they who sometimes claim to be a"third sex" or "third gender." A biblical view insists that we were created heterosexual, subject to the same moral law. Some heterosexuals engage in homosexual activity for all kinds of reasons, some tragic, but none of which are finally life-promoting or God-exalting.Misuse of Biblical Texts
"The author’s refusal to apply moral categories results in a consistent failure to search the biblical texts for a satisfying understanding of this burning contemporary problem. "
The author’s refusal to apply moral categories results in a consistent failure to search the biblical texts for a satisfying understanding of this burning contemporary problem. She admits: "As an anthropologist, I'm…devoted to understanding the patterns of this world" (15). Alas the pattern of Scripture is largely ignored, even as she claims to have "conservative views" (85) that clearly derive from Scripture. She even states that "progressive" Christians, like the gay-affirming Metropolitan Christian Church "neglect more specific and distinctive elements of the Christian tradition." However her non-judgmentalism will not allow her to say what these distinctive (and apparently extremely important) elements of the Christian tradition are.
Paris uses "pietistic" biblical terms like "holiness," "love" and "Christ," and couples them to her anthropologist approach, which is descriptive, not prescriptive. The result is an argument that never gets to the heart of the matter. At the same time, Paris dismissively characterizes the Scripture’s specific teaching ("the five or six verses") on homosexuality as "our constructions…that we read back into Scripture." (88)
She does her own "reading back," when she drops the role of anthropologist and tries her hand at exegesis.Paul and Romans 1:26-28
Paris corrects those who believe that Paul is addressing present issues in his teaching on homosexuality in Romans 1:26-28. She states: "At the time of Paul, same sex was something a man did to someone else to express power and privilege,… so a man enjoying a loving, committed relationship with a male of equal stature may have been laughable" (64-5). To this two objections must be made:Sex for Power and Privilege
In Romans 1:27, Paul says: “and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.” There are a number of reasons to think that this verse does not describe sex for "power and privilege" but something like contemporary practice:
a) The relationship is compared to "natural relations with women";
b) both partners burn for each other, similar to what Paul describes for a heterosexual yearning in 1 Corinthians 7:9;
c) the term "one another" is used by Paul to describe a mutually respectful marriage relationship (1 Cor 7:4 –“Do not deprive one another”), and everywhere else (36 times) to describe the relationship of equals. Certainly consumed with passion for one another does not describe the state of mind of a passive, sexual victim.Holiness
Holiness as a goal for Christian living appears often in the Paris text: "Holiness honors the importance of the question 'Is homo a sin'?, but recognizes that people and groups will answer it differently" (90). Again, "Holiness delivers us from moralizing” to "really pursuing sexual holiness" (though this is not defined) (91). For the meaning of this important scriptural term she takes John Wesley's definition: holiness is "love of God and neighbor." She further defines it, not as "a synonym for morality…but being more and more in love for God" (83). These are stirring terms of Christian devotion, but they eviscerate the meaning of the biblical term.
Holiness in Scripture is being “set apart” for specific tasks. The Sabbath is a holy day because it is set apart from the other days (Ex 16:23); Mount Sinai is "set apart as holy" from other places (Ex 19:23); "the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils and the basin and its stand" are consecrated as "most holy" (Ex 30:28). Thus when Jesus exhorts us to "make holy" God's name, he means to recognize that the Father who is in heaven has His own place and is different from us as the divine Other (Matt 6:12). When Paul exhorts Christians to present their bodies as a "holy" living sacrifice (Rom 12:1), he is referring to a specific life style that is pleasing to God. Paul is specific: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification (lit. "holiness"): that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable (1 Thess 4:3-4). Paul is clear that to please the Lord in honorable living includes using our bodies for God's intended, holy purposes.
I am not sure what Paris means when she says that "holiness is not synonymous with morality" (9), but I would suggest that holiness, referring to the way God constituted the creation by separating things and giving everything its rightful place (see Gen 1), is the very source of morality, and thus necessarily has a moral component. Holiness is a biblical way of referring to the different Other.
"The author affirms that "Holiness in sexuality…is the life of love centered in Christ" (118). A "life of love centered in Christ" surely means selfless living for the honor of Christ, the Other. But if, as many believe, homosexuality is seeking in the "same" in order to love the lost self, then ultimately it can never express the selfless love that is centered in Christ's love for the other. This deep cosmological meaning of human sexuality is nowhere to be found in The End of Sexual Identity."
The author affirms that "Holiness in sexuality…is the life of love centered in Christ" (118). A "life of love centered in Christ" surely means selfless living for the honor of Christ, the Other. But if, as many believe, homosexuality is seeking in the "same" in order to love the lost self, then ultimately it can never express the selfless love that is centered in Christ's love for the other. This deep cosmological meaning of human sexuality is nowhere to be found in The End of Sexual Identity.A Hidden Agenda of Biblical Sex
Reader, please know that I am not suggesting that The End of Sexual Identity is a representative of the apostasy found in today's culture and some parts of the church, mentioned above. I am suggesting however that, in ignorance, it is playing with fire, in a context of possible future theological conflagration. Perhaps Paris and IVP were determined to publish a book with a such radical thesis, knowing that biblical norms are subtly hidden behind this cloak of progressivism and inclusivism.
Even though Paris gives the impression that homosexuality and heterosexuality are moral equivalents and that numerous sexual choices deserve full acceptance in the Christian community, two-thirds of the way through the book, she declares: "My views are conservative--I'm a sex only in marriage between a man and a woman"(85). Wow! Where did that come from? As the Titanic sinks, she timidly raises her voice to sing "Abide with Me."
While she never seriously defends why she takes the conservative views she does, when she gives examples of "healing" she gives them in only one direction, from gay to straight. Though she believes it is 'not always possible to change orientation'' (61), the implied orientation to change is homosexual. When she talks of instantaneous or gradual change (88), the "change" is never from straight to gay, but from gay to straight. Her few strong statements about "sex in marriage…as an opportunity to give and receive love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (117), are not applied to "gay marriage." She defends sexual desire as good but gives only heterosexual examples from the Bible (34). She makes the important concession that while "it is important to reduce sex-based inequalities, it is also important to highlight the reality of being created male and female" (34). She ends her book with an unexpected chapter on celibacy, which I can only think is a big hint for homosexual Christian believers to find resolution in the single state. In the entire book, in an incredible tour de force of "forbearance," she never once calls homosexuality a sin, except right at the end, when, on page 133, for the first and only time, she states: "Christians choose celibacy for many reasons…[one being] because they believe it would be sinful to act on their same sex attraction." Even here, though, the non-judgmental "calm" is preserved, since the judgment about sin is only what certain believers might conclude for themselves, not a principial moral conclusion that the writer has openly and clearly developed.
We can nevertheless applaud these timid statements of a biblical view of sexuality. Jenell Paris obviously wishes to respect and maintain communion with the believer grappling with homosexuality, and this is a good and proper Christian motivation. The careful reader may catch glimpses of some elements of biblical teaching, but they can easily be missed. All in all, however, I believe her approach becomes somewhat unfair to the homosexual.
First, her lack of clarity as to the real intentions of this "open" dialogue, which finally goes only one way, could be taken by the homosexual reader as slightly dishonest. Second, her dialogical forbearance and studied ambiguity runs the serious risk of failing to warn those caught in the trap of this behavior of which she finally does not approve.
There is an even greater danger, and that is for the thousands of confused Christian students who buy this book. They are already confused by the multi-cultural context of their lives, and exposed daily to an agenda of tolerance and non-judgmentalism. This book will not show them the deep, historic connection between homosexuality and pagan religion, and, what is worse, will leave them with the impression that there is no clear biblical teaching about sexuality. The future leaders of evangelicalism will thus conclude (as many are now doing) that the wisest course is positive acceptance, general tolerance, or polite silence.
Albert Mohler has observed: "When a church forfeits its doctrinal convictions and then embraces ambiguity and tolerates heresy, it undermines its own credibility and embraces its own destruction." Homosexuality is embodied heresy, a sort of worldview apostasy--as Paul shows in Romans 1:26-28. The church must say this, with respect and love, or its demise is certain.
As I complete the writing of this review, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has decided to fully accept gays in the ministry, claiming that this is submission to the Lordship of Christ while, at the same time, choosing to ignore the clear teachings of Scripture.
Institute on Religion and Democracy Vice President and Presbyterian Action Director Alan Wisdom commented: “Now we belong to a denomination that gives no clear counsel on sexuality. It is a denomination that will not necessarily support its members as they struggle to obey the high standards of Scripture. It will not call them to repentance when they fall short of those standards, and it will not offer God’s forgiveness for what it no longer recognizes as sexual sins. In a society where the abuse of sexuality is devastating millions of lives, this abdication by the PCUSA is tragic."
While Paris seems unaware of how her book may well contribute to this tragedy, especially among evangelical Christian students, Mircea Eliade, by no means a Christian or a traditionalist, certainly is, as some forty years ago he offered this sobering admonition about the role of spiritual non-binary sexuality:
Every attempt to transcend the opposites carries with it a certain danger. This is why the ideas of a coincidentia oppositorumalways arouse ambivalent feelings: on the one side, man is haunted by the desire to escape from his particular situation and regain a transpersonal mode of life; on the other, he is paralyzed by the fear of losing his “identity” and “forgetting” himself.”
We cannot say we have not been warned.
Peter Jones, PhD is Executive Director, of truthXchange; and Scholar in Residence, at Westminster Seminary California. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves on the executive committee of the World Reformed Fellowship.