Monday, July 7, 2008

Common Human Nature

On Friday in the Times of London, religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill’s headline was “Archbishop of Armagh invokes scripture in defence of homosexuality.” While that was a bit more sensationalistic than necessary, the Most Rev’d Alan Harper, Primate of the Church of Ireland, actually did begin to lay the groundwork for a theological, rather than merely political, rationalization of the acceptance of homosexual relationships by the Church. But his theological argument, in turn, rests on his anticipation of future scientific developments.

In a speech to the annual conference of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, Archbishop Harper pointed to Richard Hooker as the source of the Anglican method of interpreting Scripture through the application of Tradition and Reason. He also recalled the importance that Anglicans place on science and knowledge. For illustration, he applied this method to the first chapter of Romans, where St. Paul writes, “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another . . .”

The archbishop conceded that science had not yet rendered a final verdict on whether or not people are born homosexual, but he believed (in Gledhill’s words) “that it seemed increasingly likely that they had no choice in the matter.” He concluded that if this were the case, then the Church would have to revisit the question of whether homosexual relations were really unnatural, rather than natural: “If such comes to be shown, it will be necessary to acknowledge the full implications of that new aspect of the truth, and that insight applied to establish and acknowledge what may be a new status for homosexual relationships within the life of the Church.”

Here is the flaw in the archbishop’s reasoning: It implicitly denies the existence of a common human nature. Instead, it imputes a different nature to homosexuals than to heterosexuals, such that they are subject to differing moral standards, based on their differing nature. As if homosexuals were a different species.

But why stop there? Some progressives of a more gnostic orientation go much further, essentially classifying each person as a sui generis being. Every individual is so distinct that there is no human nature. The concept of species, if it is valid at all, does not apply to us so-called “humans.”

Others, who call themselves transhumanists, do not assert that this is now the case, but they long for the day when technology will make it so. Through a combination of eugenics, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, cyborg implants, and other things we have not yet imagined, mankind will “take control of its own evolution.” Unless mankind came to an agreement on the direction this development was to take and enforced it rigorously, it would obviously lead to a branching of humanity in many directions away from its original nature.

If there were really no common human nature, what would be the implications?

1. If we do not share a common nature, there is no basis of a common morality. If homosexuals are a different species with a distinct nature, then they could have an entirely different natural law. In addition, they would not automatically be able to make claims based on human rights.

2. Anyone who does not share the human nature is not saved by Christ. As the Cappadocian Fathers taught, what is not assumed by Christ is not saved. In the Incarnation, Christ assumed our human nature in order to rescue and heal mankind. Those who do not share in this nature do not share in the salvation. Moreover, if you abolish human nature entirely, as the radicals do, then the Incarnation becomes meaningless or moot.

3. If there were no human nature at all, it would obviate the applicability of Darwinian evolution to mankind. Evolution is all about the origin of species. If we are not a species, then the question of our evolution is moot. (Note: It would be inconsistent for anyone to invoke Darwin at any stage of an argument against universal human nature. Some of the leading exponents of evolution have occasionally fallen into this trap.)

How, then, should one who takes the existence of human nature as given (whether from an Incarnational or a Darwinian basis) respond to Archbishop Harper? I think he is right to think about how the Church ought to respond to the likely reality that at least some instances of homosexuality have a biological basis. But I think he is wrong to proceed based on the inference that homosexuality is therefore “natural” for some people. On the one hand, this would separate homosexuals from other humans. On the other hand, it would seem to lump all homosexuals into the same category with each other. In short, it would herd homosexuals into a conceptual ghetto.

I would propose that it works better to think of homosexuality as a minor congenital anomaly. (The older term, birth defect, seems a bit too harsh, so I’ll eschew it here.) Few of us are born perfect. I have a couple of minor congenital anomalies myself – so minor that I was not even aware of them until well into my teen years, and they have no effect on my day-to-day life. Following the archbishop’s logic, I might say that these are not actually anomalies, but rather characteristics that make me a different sort of creature – and a perfect example of that sort of creature, to boot. Perhaps the only instance of that sort of creature in existence.

The more traditional approach is to say that these anomalies are unnatural, and I am therefore an imperfect manifestation of human nature. My anomalies do not make me my own species. They do not subject me to a different morality. They might sometimes make living as a human more challenging than would be the case for a more perfect human, but they do not separate me from the common human nature.


Roland said...

Dr. Robert A.J. Gagnon responds to Archbishop Harper in "The Faulty Orientation Argument."

Acolyte4236 said...

Suppose it were true that homosexuality is genetically disposed. It seems just as likely that the disposition of most males to reproduce with as many females as possible is also genetically disposed. As I recently asked a pro-homosexual aquintence, why does your genetic disposition get a moral pass but mine doesn't? Why can't we remove the commandments on fornication from the bible as well? Its not fair that I should have to struggle while you get to party it up in Sodom.