Visions of Daniel

Daniel in the Lions' Den
My Encounter with Dr. Robert Gagnon


Papers link

This paper is a personal report of my encounter with Dr. Robert Gagnon, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, on
Homosexuality and Christianity: An Academic Exploration and Forum

at Fremont Presbyterian Church, Sacramento, CA , March 20, 2010


Unexpectedly and on short notice, I received an invitation to speak on the Bible and homosexuality at Fremont Presbyterian Church, Sacramento, CA. Later I was told Dr. Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary would also participate in the program. He is the latest arch-representative of the biblical anti-gay movement.

I hesitated to get myself involved in what I knew would be a challenging event, but it was right that I did. In a letter to Southern Voice, April 16, 2009 , I threw down the gauntlet before Dr. Robert Gagnon, publicly challenging his to address the evidence on homosexuality in the Bible. I could hardly now refuse to face him. Besides, as many predicted, to the good, the people truly appreciated my participation and input. About 75 to 100 attended each of the three sessions. About half of this fluid audience remained all day, 9 AM to 9 PM. Many were seeing for the first time, or were confirming for themselves, a liberating view of biblical teaching on homosexuality, and they were grateful.

But the experience was shaking for me. I would not do it again. My presentations were fine, despite some technical problems with e-files, but the emotional intensity was costly. I carried disturbing images of those events in the periphery of my mind for days: post-traumatic stress. I learned that I was invited from the East coast, not because scholars on the West actually had other commitments, but because no one would appear on the same platform with Robert Gagnon. Others are perhaps adopting Bishop John Spong's latest stance—simply to ignore the Biblicists, not to grace them with recognition, and not to waste time and energy with their untenable arguments.

Gagnon is no push-over. He is not the typical Fundamentalist. He knows his stuff inside and out, and he has worked out a fully rationalized (eisegetical) argument for his position. He claims to be, and is, the leader of a "new wave" of "Bible-believers" who continue to condemn homosexuality in the face of the recent historical and scientific research. He actually knows and uses the historical evidence, and formidably so.

On my reading, however, he is not genuinely historical-critical but has moved only half way from outright literalism to historical-critical method. He represents the dangerous thrust of the Evangelical tradition, which rests on insistence that the Bible has the first and last word on everything and which reaches its blatantly irrational epitome in the magic-like literalism of Fundamentalism. He only uses those aspects of the historical evidence that suit his argument and rejects, discredits, demeans, or otherwise argues away the rest—which, to be fair, perhaps is only typical of scholarly argument. Of course, I don't find his reasoning convincing, but rather contrived and gratuitous. In addition, he retains Fundamentalist styles of interpretation that are completely incompatible with historical-critical method.

For example, Romans 11:24 has God acting para physin (usually translated “unnatural”). There Paul explicitly toys with the Stoic terms para physin (contrary to nature) and kata physin (according to nature) and dismisses them before God, who will not be bound by cultural expectations, human standards, or ordinary practices. In this case, Paul obviously holds the popular, not the technical, Stoic meaning of these terms, which has mistakenly controlled the discussion for centuries. Paul intends, not unnatural, but atypical. This usage, because it is applied to God, can carry no ethical condemnation. It must refer to varying cultures and their taboos and mores, not to genuine ethics. This weighty fact provides an important view into Paul's own mind, but it has no relevance to Gagnon for interpreting para physin about same-sex acts in 1:26. There Gagnon imports the prevalent cultural usage—both the standard reference to same-sex acts and their condemnation—colored by the sexual decadence of the Roman Empire and the Jewish-Gentile rivalry of the day, and he insists that very condemnation is what Paul must have had in mind. In contrast, I and others would leave room for Paul's being radical vis-à-vis his culture. But no, simply put, Gagnon's is the same argument via begging the question that I once got from a Fundamentalist preacher: "Oh, but in chapter 1 the topic is homosexuality, so the terms must be condemning there." Most telling is that Gagnon, the self-proclaimed historical-critical scholar, will admit not even a shadow of a doubt despite this weighty evidence about Paul's own usage.

Gagnon also excuses the litteralist's way of freely combining any biblical text with any other text, a practice completely at odds with historical-critical method—because, as the Fundamentalists insist with unnuanced uniformity, “The Bible is all the word of one author, God.” This argument forgets that God would have had to use varying individuals, situations, and human languages to covey any divine word to humans. Therefore, interpretation must take these differences into account. To get to God's intended meaning, interpretation must pass through the meaning of the human authors in the particularity of every individual statement. The multitudinous parts of the Bible cannot be homogenized as if the Bible is a single book produced in a single writing by a single author. Gagnon pushes his homogenizing interpretation to outlandish limits. I called it "six degrees of separation" in reference to the trivia game whose aim is to link Kevin Bacon to any other actor or actress whatsoever through a chain of associations with others in various movies. In one remarkably creative example, Gagnon gets Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus) 16:8, an outright and absolutely non-sexual statement about the sin of Sodom, namely, arrogance, to mean homosexuality. Gagnon's circuitous argument is summarized at the end of this report.

Giving it respectability, Gagnon names his method "intertextuality." I'd never heard this term and thought it was the latest hermeneutical angle in biblical studies. But no (Wikipedia has a useful entry on it), the term comes from postmodern literary criticism, is decades old, was recognized immediately by my English-major boyfriend, and allows that interpretatively one can associate anything with anything else as long as one can propose some reason, any reason, distant, speculative, or innovative, to support the connection.

Of course, the upshot of this postmodern method and a staple of postmodernism is that texts supposedly have no inherent meaning but acquire changing meanings from shifting cultural interpretations—a position that is diametrically opposed to the Bible believers' insistence that the Bible is God's unchanging word. However, as seems typical of Fundamentalism, supposedly any tack can be taken if it would support one's argument and other implications can just be ignored. Again this approach reminded me, a Catholic priest, of being faulted by a "Bible believer" on another occasion for not toeing the line on Vatican teaching although the person faulting me held the pope to be the antichrist.

Gagnon's core argument rests on the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. As I see it, he holds a philosophical opinion about human sexuality—the Stoic and Vatican notion that sex is for procreation and, thus, allowed only for a married heterosexual couple—and creatively he finds support for it in the biblical texts.

According to standard historical-critical method, there is nothing in those texts of Genesis to suggest that homosexuality was a concern of the author. That the Bible uses the standard case of a man and woman to illustrate God's goodness in creation says nothing about the never considered question of sexual orientation. At bottom, Gagnon's is the ad ignorantiam argument, the argument based on what was not said: “It must be condemned because it wasn't even mentioned!”

With unbelievable conviction, Gagnon argues that man and woman are two halves (he actually used these words), which need to come together in complementarity to constitute a complete human, "an adam." He goes so far as to say that the image of God in us (Genesis 1:27 : “God created humankind in his image”) is not complete without these two halves. I wonder how Jesus, a mere male, could qualify as "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15).

Gagnon insists this teaching, an ethical one, is at the heart of biblical revelation. It could never be dismissed or qualified as other blatant cultural errors in the Bible have needed to be—for example, slavery (an ethical issues), usury (an ethical issue), a flat earth and a stunningly short geological age (scientific issues), or women's rights and roles (another ethical issue). In this latter case, I'm not sure what Gagnon would hold since the creation accounts supposedly fix woman's relationship to man, yet Gagnon insists this teaching is not related to the patriarchy of ancient Jewish society and does not support it. Incredible!

Additionally, supposedly, all current human science about the world, which God created, has no bearing on the divine mandate that Gagnon finds in Genesis. In fact, the Genesis portrayal of man and woman has the story backwards. God formed Eve from the “side” (usually translated “rib”) of Adam. However, the biological fact is that the female is the “basic model,” and a male is a “souped-up” female. To produce a boy, a number of conditions need to be met (such as the presence of sufficient testosterone, an enzymatic change of testosterone to dihyrotestosterone, and the presence of anti-müllerian hormone). If any is not, development reverts to the default, female. The Bible is wrong about the biological priority of man over woman.

Or again, Gagnon deems recent awareness of sexual diversities negligible. They involve "less than 1% of the population," according to his grossly mistaken statistics, which he proclaimed with dismissive confidence. The biological fact that about 2% of babies are not even born simply as either male or female, but intersex (hermaphrodite), has no bearing on Gagnon's position, nor does the fact that in transsexual people brain and genitals do not match.

Evidently, Gagnon addresses questions of sexuality with stunning ignorance about current biological, medical, and social-science findings. In fact, the conference was re-structured to accommodate this ignorance. Originally, the three sessions were named "Old Testament," "New Testament," and "Science." But "Science" got changed to "Reason/Science," and Gagnon's contribution discussed the various considerations that go into biblical interpretation. He never touched on questions of current scientific knowledge about human sexuality. Ignoring any possible influence from subsequent learning, Gagnon rests his whole understanding of LGBT issues on his reading of primitive religious texts.

Many in the audience found Gagnon's presentations distant, esoteric, and pedantic, difficult to follow. He was presenting academic lectures. His style came across to me as also smug, snide, and demeaning.

• Supposedly, my sources were "lightweight scholars."

• Likewise, Theodore Jennings (author of the man Jesus loved) "is not even a biblical scholar." Yet, with degrees from Duke and Emory, he is professor of biblical theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and is a United Methodist clergyman.

• Gagnon demeaned and supposedly discredited other scholars as “self-identified homosexuals.” Apparently, much of the audience and perhaps even Gagnon did not seem to get my rejoinder: in parallel manner, Gagnon's own position about man, woman, and marriage must be suspect and discredited because he is a “self-identified heterosexual” and, as such, should not be trusted to speak objectively about heterosexuality. But logic hardly influences talk of sex.

• Gagnon dismissed Jewish sources on Hebrew as opinions of "the local rabbi down the street." A key question of Hebrew-language usage regarded Ezekiel 16:49. It outright describes the sin of Sodom, and it is not sexual. But the next verse mentions “abomination,” and Gagnon insists this “abomination” qualifies Ezekiel's description of Sodom and makes the sin include same-sex acts. In the Hebrew the word is a singular with an indefinite article. Gagnon insists it translates “an abomination” and takes this to be a specific biblical reference to the not-to-be-named sin of Leviticus 18:22: “man lying with man.” Hebrew rabbis and even the most respected of Jewish translations hold that, according to standard Hebrew usage, this singular noun with an indefinite article can be, and in this case is, generic and in English means simply “they committed abomination,” not some specific one in particular. In this case, as Jewish scholars and most others understand the matter, “abomination” in verse 50 refers to the list of sins Ezekiel just mentioned, not to something additional, not to homosexuality or any other specific abomination, so Ezekiel does not see homosexuality as the sin of Sodom. But Gagnon prefers his own reading of the Hebrew.

• Finally, I explained Roman Catholic teaching on the difference between wrong-doing and sinning, that Catholic emphasis on the priority of conscience: wrong is in the objective order and, simply put, is destructive and hurtful behavior, whereas sin is in the heart and implies personal corruption. So, ignorant or misinformed, like a child, one could do real wrong but be innocent of personal malice, and a good God would not see sin and (as even our justice system) would not condemn the person, despite the real wrong that was done. Or, even vice versa, if one deliberately does something that is not really wrong while mistakenly thinking it is, one actually is corrupt, rotten to the core, sinful: one doesn't care about right or wrong, and God would condemn this person as sinful although no objective wrong was done. Unlike some other traditions, where God is like a police officer and “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Catholicism takes personal culpability into account to explain sin as different from, and possibly not even involving, a wrong. According to Gagnon's infuriating misrepresentation of me, I hold "that you can do anything you want, and if you think it's okay, it's not wrong."

I am told that some scholars are preparing a formal, published response to Gagnon's book. I certainly hope so. Dan O. Via already co-authored a book with Gagnon: Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views. As for me, I will gladly wait till the biblical scholars, who have kept up with the scholarship over the years since I published my book (1994, 2000), make their technical response. I have neither a desire to encounter Gagnon again nor any intention of spending precious time reworking those historical texts that are hardly pertinent to the other important scholarship on Lonergan and spirituality that I see as my singular vocation. I'll leave that biblical task to others.

In light of the evidence on every front and my belief in a good and intelligent God, I cannot imagine how Gagnon's sexual ethics could ever be correct. But he appears absolutely intransigent, impenetrable in his thinking, unwilling and probably unable to allow any questions to emerge. I can only speculate and interpret my own experience of the man. I must wonder what drives his intense and meticulously insistent argumentation that the Bible and its culture condemned homosexuality as the paradigmatic sin against God and creation. Gagnon just pooh-poohed my lament over turning the paradigmatic biblical sin of lack of charity or love into the sexual sin of the Sodom story. I find this religiously driven thinking and its, oh, so sure conclusions scary.

I had one hopeful observation after the event. Despite all-out efforts to get media coverage, not one media person showed up, and I am not aware of any coverage except the press releases announcing the event in a local Sacramento newspaper (which I never saw). I am happily and optimistically taking this outcome to mean that nobody really cares anymore; this debate is not press-worthy. Even my year-old challenge to Gagnon in Southern Voice and on my website appears to society at large as just in-house squabbling.

I got this same sense from the people at the conference. Of course, only those who agreed with my position spoke with me, and I have no idea what others were saying to Gagnon. We never spoke to each other except to say hello and shake hands—I shudder to remember it after what transpired—before the sessions began. Nonetheless, my impression was that, in that conservative country, many, many people have had to face homosexuality in their families and social networks, and many have moved beyond any literalist reading of the Bible. Fremont Presbyterian Church and its pastor Dr. Don Baird are themselves to be commended for airing this controversial topic. As I noted in my opening remarks at the forum, the very fact that this event took place discredits any claim that the supposed biblical condemnation of homosexuality is lucid, clear, undeniable. Obviously, the teaching is in dispute, or such a debate would never be possible. But hard-line biblical literalists lose their case if they as much as even honestly admit this fact. So they deny it. That's today's “Christians” for you!

I think the struggle is coming to an end, but the final skirmishes will be intense and ruthless. Consider what's going on in Uganda, the Episcopal Church, and the Vatican. To be sure, then, it is not literally true that “nobody really cares anymore.” Indeed, many are still suffering immense and needless hurt because of simplistic religious teaching. Still, what is true is that only a shrinking and marginalized cadre of spiritually enslaved true believers still care.


“Six Degrees of Separation”

Robert Gagnon's strained argument,
respectably entitled “intertextuality,”
to support a prior opinion

• Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 16:8: “He [God] did not spare the neighbors of Lot, whom he loathed on account of their arrogance.” The sin is arrogance, nothing sexual. BUT…

• Arrogance would be prideful, and in an oracle against pride in another place, Sirach says, “The one who clings to it [pride] pours out abominations” (10:13 ). No sex here either, BUT…

• These “abominations” would certainly have to include (why?) “man lying with man” (Leviticus 18:22). AND …

• Sirach does have sex on his mind:

  In 9:1-9, he warns against sexual sins—no mention of pride or same-sex acts. BUT…

  In 23:18, 22, 26-27, he decries other heterosexual sins—and, ah, yes, the lack of “fear of the Lord”! AND …

• Lack of fear of the Lord is prideful. SO…

• In six steps, (1) sexual sins link with lack of (2) fear of the Lord, which is like (3) pride, which both is like (4) arrogance and produces (5) abominations, one of which is (6) the sin of Sodom.

“Consequently, it is possible that in 16:8 ben Sirach interpreted the sin of Sodom…as hostile behavior toward ‘sojourners,' climaxing in an act of homosexual rape” (Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, pp. 86-87).

Gagnon is smart enough not to say 16:8 actually refers to homosexual rape. For his purposes it suffices to raise doubts about Sirach's outright statement and to let this doubt—attributed to a biblical scholar—bolster the naive opinion of uneducated "Bible believers" that the Bible actually does condemn homosexuality.