Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

20130609-104815.jpgI have been reading John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality over the past couple of weeks. Picking through it, mostly. According to my Kindle, I am 38% of the way through the book. So I thought it might be good to take a moment to offer a brief, initial reflection.

The good parts…

Boswell gets his Bible right. The author avoid anachronistically talking about the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality, a kind of “diagnosis” with modern origins. Instead, the Bible focuses mostly on men, especially the “passive” ones in a gay sexual encounter. That is, the Bible does not think of categories of people but types of acts, and its strongest condemnations are for men who allow themselves to be used as women. The Bible barely mentions lesbian relationships, if at all (some ancient interpreters took Romans 1:26 to refer to women with too much heterosexual passion).


Boswell gets his anthropology right. I have lamented before that most Orthodox condemnations of gays invoke “nature” in a way that is foreign to our tradition. Nature as an ideal basis for moral judgment is an invention of the Medieval Latin church. The early fathers often invoke nature in a negative way, referring to,the realm of the cosmos that still rebels against God’s reign.”20130613-074504.jpg


on the other hand…

Boswell’s thesis is weak so far. The author argues that Christians’ early tolerance of same-sex attraction and acts began to change when Rome fell and society became more rural. He cites good evidence for the claim that Christians today view “homosexuality” as a graver sin than our predecessors (his evidence includes penitentials and laws about male prostitutes). But the urban-rural dichotomy does not explain the shift in Christian thinking, if indeed there was one. I think he may be eisegeting – reading into his sources – because he is basically saying that most homophobes are hicks. I have heard this before, and I am not convinced. Yet.20130613-075005.jpg

21 thoughts on “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality”

  1. I haven't read any Boswell but it sounds fascinating.

    I'm convinced more and more that the antipathy to gays in Christian tradition is much like the antipathy to eunuchs that has existed off and on- it's something unusual that most people cannot understand, so they are easy scapegoats. There are Fathers, like Basil the Great, after all, who condemned eunuchs as "damned by the knife", and yet later in Christian history they were accepted.

    And yet, Jesus Christ himself was not afraid to confront the outcasts and marginalized and to unmask the forces that were responsible for their marginalization.
    In a few decades, gays will be no different, they will be widely accepted, the world will move on, and the doomsday predictions will be forgotten. The only question is whether Christians will side with Christ in reaching out to the marginalized, or they will instead hide behind religion like the pharisees did.

  2. The argument made about the canons is slight of hand. The full canonical penalty for someone who had homosexual sex was excommunication for 15 years. But various Fathers prescribed a more leniency to those who showed sincere repentance. For example, Canon 18 of St. John the Faster states:

    "It has seemed advisable to exclude any man who has been so mad as to copulate with another man from Communion for three years, weeping and fasting, and towards evening confined to xerophagy, and doing two hundred metanias. But as for one who prefers to take it easy, let him fulfill the fifteen years."

    As St. John indicates, the full penance for homosexual sex was 15 years… three years of weeping and fasting and 200 prostrations a day was pastoral leniency, in those days. But if you take the full canonical penalty for a less serious sin, and compare it was a lenient penance for a more serious sin, you can give all kinds of false impressions. Boswell is simply disingenuous on this point, as he so often was when it came to homosexual advocacy.

    1. If I wanted to know what Episcopalians thought about such issues I would read Mr. Dunn's writings.

    2. sigh, stoics, platonists and Aristotelians weren't the "medieval Latin church" silly goose.

    3. I assume you are referring to somehwere else in the book that I have not read yet, because above I do not refer to canons but penitentials. They are different.

    4. Perry, I think it's very interesting that I offered a mixed review that ended on a critical note, yet you seemed to take it as an invitation to make a dismissive personal remark. I have lately been much less interested in extending olive branches to critics. This is why. "Haters gonna hate," as the kids say. [Sigh!] Okay, going Gandhi now. Peace, brother.

    5. "Penitentials" are simply pastoral applications of the canons. And penances are not just a number of days, but also involve what you do during those days. Some penances involve severe fasting and prostrations, while others a priest might be banned from serving for three years, but not required to do anything else. You can't say that the sin of hunting is therefore viewed as more serious than "homosexual acts", by which he probably means mutual masturbation, rather than actual sodomy… which I don't would be penanced as lightly as he suggests by anyone in those days.

    6. Ironically, Father, you are actually making a similar methodological move that I find unfortunate in Boswell, only in the other direction. The author draws general conclusions from local writings or episodes. In this case, I think you would need to do more work to show that the penitentials to which he referred (and there were lots of them) are drawing upon, or even aware of, the "full penance" to which you refer (which I assume comes from The Rudder). The same goes for the presumption about the particular acts involved.

    7. So David, you're suggesting that Pope Leo III of Rome was unaware of the Ecumenical Canons of the Church, or St. Basil's canons?

      St. Basil's canons were specifically affirmed at the 6th and 7th Ecumenical Councils, both of which preceded his tenure as Pope.

      Here are two canons of St. Basil:

      The sentence for a man guilty of having committed adultery is that he shall be excluded from the Holy Elements for fifteen years. These fifteen years shall be allotted to him in the following manner, to wit: For four years he shall keep weeping; for five years, listening; for four years, kneeling; for two years, co-standing without Communion.

      As for any man who uncovers his nakedness in the midst of males, he shall be allotted the time fixed for those transgressing in the act of adultery.

      Aside from that, Boswell is using weasel words in his reference to Pope Leo's penitentiary, because he refers to lesbian and homosexual "acts" which probably refers to something less than outright sodomy… or he would not have have used that word.

      Do you really think Rome, in 8th and 9th century took a more lenient view of homosexuality than the rest of the Church?

    8. So, Father, you're suggesting that the evidence you cited from Basil contradicts the above statement that, "He [Boswell] cites good evidence for the claim that Christians today view “homosexuality” as a graver sin than our predecessors"?

      I am a bit confused by your accusation that Boswell is using "weasel words" when it comes to Pope Leo III. Where does he refer to Pope Leo III? I am not finding the reference.

    9. Yes, I do believe it is evidence that we do not take homosexuality as a graver sin than our predecessors did. I don't know of any priest who would penance a homosexual for 15 years, but in St. Basil's time that was the norm.

      I meant to refer to his mention of Pope Gregory III, but got the middle part confused. But most of what I said still applies. St. Gregory lived after the 6th Ecumenical Council affirmed the canons of St. Basil, and given that he was from Syria, he would certainly have been fluent in Greek and been very familiar with St. Basil's canons. Boswell is implying more than his evidence likely supports, because he refers to "lesbian activities" and homosexual "acts", and I am very sure that those words are not based in St. Gregory's actual words. If he was speaking of outright sodomy, Boswell would have said so, and so he no doubt was not. However, if you have the actual quotes from his "penitential", and they say something different, I would be interested in seeing the quotes. 8th century Rome was no hotbed of laxity on sexual issues.

    10. "Si qua mulier cum altera coitum fecerit, quatuor quadragesimas poeniteat. Molles unum annum poeniteant."

      I do not think it is fair to accuse the author of sleight of hand because he goes on in the footnote to indicate that "molles" would typically apply to masturbation but to argue that the context to him suggests gay sex. So one cannot rightly accuse him of being deceptive. However, I find his argument not very convincing because he is being anachronistic. Therefore, one can (and should) accuse him of bad judgment.

      I am no expert in Latin, but I believe that "coitum" is pretty unambiguous when it comes to what we now call lesbianism. Thus sex between women was not seen as sinful as sex between men. Rather I would argue that the context suggests it was seen to be about as serious as masturbation. This does indicate shifting attitudes since I doubt most priests would say the same today.

      I am not contesting your point about St. Basil or Pope Gregory III. But Pope Gregory is not the only evidence Boswell cites. Attitudes about "homosexuality" varied by time period and region. Thus the redeeming quality of the book, despite my mostly critical review, is its breadth.

    11. The penance for masturbation in St. John the Faster's canons was 40 days: "Anyone having committed masturbation is penanced forty days, during which he must keep himself alive by xerophagy and must do one hundred metanies every day." The penance for two men who engaged in double masturbation was double that, because the sin involved another person. Interestingly, this penance was double that again. But the point is, he was being dishonest. Does he provide a quote to substantiate his "homosexual acts between males"? I'll be the less than one year penance was not for those who engaged in outright sodomy. I would be curious to see what other evidence he has. The fact is, the strict application of the penances regarding homosexuality did not increase with time, but just the opposite, as is true of most penances.

    12. Yes, he provided a quote. I do not have time to type the full footnote, but he quoted the original Latin, cited the source, and then explained why he disagreed with the standard interpretation. That is honest. Not convincing, but honest.

  3. I believe that attributing to Boswell the idea that homophobes are hicks misses one of his points, and it's an interesting observation: that to whatever degree homosexuality has gained acceptance in the Western Christian world (to the degree that has ever happened), that acceptance has been urban rather than rural, but another of his points is that acceptance seems to happen more in economic good times and that hatred of gays occurs more during the hard times. Sexual minorites tend to flock to the cities to find more of their kind, thus urbanites are more likely to encounter them than "hicks" are, and to see them as human. In hard economic times, we have a tendency to look for scapegoats, and sexual minorities work well for that.

    1. Ah. I see your point. Greater population density increases the likelihood of encountering and befriending minorities of any kind. I still think he is making some logical leaps from his evidence to his conclusions. But I am only 38% through.


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