The present essay launches Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s Bridging Voices series, an ongoing initiative to respond to the summaries of papers presented at the August 2019 conference of the same name at Oxford and published over time by Public Orthodoxy.
If you would like to write for this series, see our Bridging Voices: Call for Responses and check the Fordham-Exeter Bridging Voices Project archive periodically for an updated list of summaries published.
Mr. McMeans responds to Richard Swinburne’s Christian Teaching on Sexual Morality, which appeared on October 7, 2019. We recommend that you read the Swinburne article first.
When I heard that Richard Swinburne had published an article in Public Orthodoxy called Christian Teaching on Sexual Morality I was delighted. First, I was delighted as an Orthodox Christian, and second, I was delighted as a philosopher. Sadly, I was disappointed on both counts.
I had assumed that the presence of so great a philosophical light as Professor Swinburne at the Bridging Voices conference last August would put to rest the reactionary chatter on Orthodox Twitter and Facebook; how the secret cabal of Orthodox heretics (whatever those are) was meeting to normalize heresy; how the next thing you know, they’ll be demanding we have gay Pride processions during Liturgy; how all the transgenders are out trying to convince our kids to experiment with gender choice because postmodernism and Jordan Peterson says, and on and on. My naive optimism is in no way a reflection on the professor.
But my second disappointment was to be in Swinburne’s philosophical argument. Argument may be too strong a word, frankly, because on my several readings of his article I can’t seem to identify any conclusion at all. He opens his essay by expressing his preference for the idea that “fundamental moral principles are necessary truths about the moral natures of different kinds of action” (emphasis Swinburne’s). Then he gives specific examples of what he calls derived moral principles which the Church uses to explain to us that “central moral doctrines” like “contraception within marriage, remarriage after divorce (with possible exceptions), sexual intercourse outside marriage, and homosexual acts, are sinful.”
Space limitations here preclude my giving proper philosophical attention to each of these “derived moral principles” and how, apparently, they can change over time—given that the earth is now closer to being full, as Swinburne says. Perhaps another time. Parenthetically, it is tempting to think about the surprise on the part of some well-known priests to find out that the earth being full has anything to do with contraception (see On Contraception According to the Holy Fathers of the Church.)
For now, I’d like to focus my attention on a comment where Swinburne comes closest to setting down a discernable argument. Speaking of the traditional views of sexual morality on divorce, premarital sexual intercourse, and “homosexual acts” (I leave it to the reader to elucidate Swinburne’s interesting distinction between heterosexual “intercourse” and homosexual “acts”), Swinburne says:
…since the Church for 2,000 years has taught with virtual unanimity that those other acts are wrong, we must conclude that either the Church is not a reliable source of authority on moral matters (not merely for us, but also for the first century Christians who read Paul’s letters), or that the secular world is not a reliable source [emphasis Swinburne’s].
Here is where Swinburne goes wrong, and I believe his mistake is a philosophical one. Swinburne cleverly gives us a choice between either the Church’s authority or the world’s authority as a source of “traditional views of sexual morality.” But this is not how concepts like “sexual morality” enter into our lives. A proper philosophical account of differing or clashing moral views must include descriptions of how these views are worked out among us. People (religious or not) don’t talk to one another about morality (sexual or not) only in terms of which source of authority to use. For some it not a choice between either this or that authority. For some, it is simply a clash between different authorities—a clash is a clash pick your poison; for others, sometimes the Church’s authority wins out, sometimes the world wins (one priest source tells me that some prominent “anti-contraception” priests lament that their parishioners completely ignore teaching on the subject so they kind of give up).
Still, for others, ideas of authority and agreeing on proper sources for it, never enter into the discussion. I don’t love my pansexual daughter because of some metaphysical notion of a fundamental moral principle or because the world’s argument won the day against the Church’s argument. My moral views get their sense from the way I love my pansexual daughter.
I don’t want to leave the subject of Swinburne’s essay with the impression that he offers nothing of value. To the contrary, I believe he leaves room for much more discussion, and perhaps affirms the purpose of the Bridging Voices conference.
It would have been nice for him to say, though.
I, for one would have enjoyed hearing more about these comments:
Although breaking the rules of sexual morality is always sinful, there are far more serious sins; and I draw no conclusions from what I have written for how the Church should exercise its pastoral care over those of its members who break these rules, quite often because they do not believe that it is wrong to do so. I pray only that Church may show respect, compassion, and understanding for them; and find some kind of space within its ample bounds for all sinners who sincerely seek to discover and follow the way to sanctity.
So, while I believe this paragraph to be the best of Swinburne’s offering, I want to explain why I’m confused about his conclusion. Is Swinburne saying that even though traditional moral values win the philosophical day, the task of determining the place of LGBTQ+ folk in the Church is religious or pastoral? If so, I agree. But that has nothing to do with the question of what to do with clashing moral values. Those I read on social media and those whom I interviewed in preparation for this piece—those who think that most participants in the Bridging Voices conference are heretics—are deathly afraid that inquiry into LGBTQ+ inclusion in Orthodoxy will lead inexorably to the Sacrament of Gay Marriage. Such fears must be treated seriously with respect, humility, and honesty. They must be met with Christian love.
Then there are people like myself, I suppose. The other side. People who get the Tradition but despair at the idea of anybody being excluded entirely from it, while we chiefs of sinners are included. Time will tell if the reactionaries, inside the Church and out, will allow such gatherings as Bridging Voices to define further what we are for and what we are against. But speaking for myself, I’m against any Christian, inside the Church and out, who cannot give proper attention to the question at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: How are LGBTQ+ people to be saved? The answers will vary—and they may clash—but my own absolute insistence that this question be addressed is another example of a moral stance without foundational needs.
Although Professor Swinburne does not do conceptual justice to the ways in which moral clashes and genuine spiritual struggle occur in our lives and discourse, he does remind us that there are more serious sins than being LGBTQ+. We might ask him to delineate them, order and rate them. Or we might look at his observation as a kind of moral reminder itself.
Those more serious sins are committed by us.
See the Bridging Voices, Fifty Years after Stonewall, and extensive Sexuality and Gender sections in our Archives.
Steve McMeans is a writer, church critic, and philosopher of religion. He is currently building a new YouTube channel called Unprofessional Philosophy, an interview-driven show based on the work of his graduate school teacher and mentor, D.Z. Phillips. He can be contacted on Twitter @stevenjmc.