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“Sexual preferences” is simply contemporary code for lesbianism and homosexuality. The question is not asking, for example, about the “sexual preferences” of clergy who choose or are chosen for celibacy which is, after all, a “sexual preference” or, better, a “non-sexual preference.”
The question repeats, first of all, what was already asked on Wednesday, February 28, 2007: “What does your faith lead you to believe about gay unions and gay clergy?” And, second, it asks whether “don’t ask, don’t tell” is an adequate solution if and when one’s faith prohibits gay married clergy.
My answer responds narrowly within biblically-based Christianity and it argues that “don’s ask, don’t tell” is not a solution but an evasion. What we need, instead, is a “don’t care.” Gay or straight should be as irrelevant as color or race in making a Christian judgment about a sexual relationship.
What has to be done instead is an honest and open decision on the contemporary validity of New Testament prohibitions on gay sexual relationships involving Christian laity and clergy. And so, quite deliberately, I repeat what I said to that February question.
Decisions on what is natural and unnatural define our humanity but those determinations, unfortunately, are also and always conditioned by time and place, society and religion. An example. The Greek philosopher Aristotle judged slavery to be a natural situation. But the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, judged it to be an unnatural status–“a thing absolutely and wholly contrary to nature, for nature has created all men free, but the injustice and covetousness of some men who prefer inequality, that cause of evil, having subdued some, has given to the more powerful authority over those who are weaker (On the Contemplative Life, 70).
Another example. My own personal and moral judgment is that capital punishment is a cruel, unusual, and unnatural penalty. But, quite clearly, many others in our country find it quite natural.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul made a rather sweeping accusation against non-Jews. “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural,” he wrote in 1:26-27, “and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” That judgment on homosexuality as against nature (physis) is also echoed in most other contemporary Jewish writings on that subject.
Earlier, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul also invoked “nature’ in discussing the length of female and male hair. “Does not nature (physis) itself teach you,” he asked them rhetorically in 11:14-15, ” that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.” Most of us might well agree that gendered hair-length is not about human nature and human unnature but about social custom and social habit.
My point is not that our judgments about what is natural and unnatural are irrelevant or absolutely relative but that we must always carefully assess what is nature (avoid eating people) and what is tradition (avoid eating pets).
On homosexuality, many ancients judged sexual nature in terms of biology and organs but many moderns–myself included–judge sexual nature in terms of chemistry and hormones. In other words, Paul was wrong on hair and equally wrong on homosexuality. And, by the way, can you imagine how unnatural he would have considered a heart-transplant?