Jollyblogger and Tim Challies are discussing an argument from David Powlison against social explanations for homosexuality. In particular, they pick on a Christian counselor who explains why someone is a lesbian by pointing to events in her past.
I think there are several reasons to disagree with the basic thrust of this argument, but one pretty ironic one is that many Christians are spending so much effort to deny biological explanations for homosexuality that they're left explaining it in terms of social factors exactly like the case Powlison is rejecting here. Powlison now wants to remove social explanations as well. Why? It seems that Powlison thinks (and David Wayne and Tim Challies agree with him) that giving an account of why something is true is inconsistent with saying that anything could be sinful about the thing you're explaining.
I can't disagree more. This argument seems to me to rely on two fallacies, a category mistake and a false dichtomy, and I think it leads to some very disturbing consequences if we consistently refused to explain sin in this way. I hereby call them to reconsider for the following reasons.
Romans 1 gives us the cause of homosexuality. It's an effect of sin. It's important to remember that homosexuality itself is not a sin, since it's not the sort of thing that could be a sin. That's the category mistake. What the Bible clearly calls sin is homosexual sex, and those who take the Bible as authoritative generally recognize that. I think it can be extended to any conscious decisions to identify one's very identity with something against God's creation order, which is what people do when they accept a homosexual orientation as perfectly fine. But I don't think it can legitimately be extended to the mere state of finding oneself attracted to people of the same sex. That state is no more sinful than finding oneself attracted to people of the opposite sex while being married. Either can incline one toward sin, but the state itself, while not God's intention for human beings, is not sinful. So even if it is sinful to explain sin by biological and social factors, how can it be sinful to use such factors to explain that preconditioning state of homosexual attraction? How is it supposed to be hiding the sin when you explain why someone is preconditioned toward one particular sin rather than another? So it's a category mistake to treat homosexuality itself as the sin.
But homosexuality is an effect of sin, according to Romans 1. Does that mean it's not caused by social and biological factors? Well, Romans 1 doesn't get into the specifics of how sin has led to homosexuality. The strongest evidence we have is that the best explanation is fairly complex. There are biological elements, and there are social elements in that complex explanation. Neither one of the two (nor the combination of the two) affects the moral status of homosexual sex (and therefore cannot diminish its wrongness if it is indeed wrong) anymore than discovering biological or social explanations for someone's grumpiness makes it ok to be grumpy or finding biological or social explanations for someone's perseverance in difficulty makes it not good to persevere in difficulty.
This doesn't mean that the particular social forces mentioned in the case Powlison discusses are what made that woman a lesbian. Surely it's more complicated than that. But it also doesn't seem to me to be a good idea to act as if people simply decide to be gay, and that's what Powlison seems to me to be doing. If that were the case, I don't think we'd find very many people wishing they weren't gay or struggling to overcome homosexual tendencies, and the history of the ex-gay movement shows that those struggles are indeed real and not simply a matter of someone choosing not to be gay anymore.
My main point is that explaining what causes something to happen is not the same thing as excusing it as ok or justifying it as good. Someone might try to do both simultaneously, of course. But they are not the same, and simply doing the explaining does not amount to treating it as an excuse or justification. One can do the former and not do the latter. The former is just an explanation of how someone ends up a certain way. The moral issues about what state it is good to be in or what actions it is good to do are completely separate from the empirical issues of what causes the state or the action. People on both sides of this issue regularly miss that, and we're much worse off for it. Establishing biological explanations for homosexuality says nothing about the moral elements of homosexuality or homosexual sex. Discovering social causes similarly says nothing at all about the moral issues.
Consider heterosexual sin. There's no question that there are biological and social explanations for why many men lust after scantily-clad women they see on TV (or whatever). The biological component is extremely strong, tied to hormones and neurochemistry. There are also socially-determined elements that, in the grand narrative of western society, tell us what kind of woman we really want to have, i.e. someone unhealthily skinny and exactly the shade that our culture happens to favor at the moment but with huge
tracts of land mammary glands. (Note: I'm not saying anything about whether any particular body shape is good or bad here, just identifying the forces in society that lead most men to be unintentionally attracted to one particular kind of body.) These biological and social components of the explanation for lust do not mean it's not sin to lust. It's not hiding sin to explain in such terms why someone might lust. So why should it mean we're hiding sin just because we explain homosexual desire via biology and sociology? These are two very different levels of explanation.
Consider a moral issue that's a little more remote. It doesn't excuse or justify an abortion if I explain what might motivate someone to do it. I may perfectly consistently think the abortion was the wrong decision to make, perhaps even considering it tantamount to murder. Yet I can explain what brought the person to make that decision, even in terms that might make someone feel very sorry for someone in those circumstances. I might list factors that would make someone prefer to end the life of a fetus growing within her when compared with what life would be like if she went through the pregnancy. I might sort through the reasoning process that led her to conclude that it is not wrong to have an abortion because of certain factors in her case that outweigh the considerations against abortion. Yet I can do all this explaining while disagreeing with her. I might still think she did something deeply immoral. Explaining an action does not count as excusing it or justifying it.
I don't just think the Powlison/Wayne/Challies position is wrong. I think it's morally dangerous. If we start refusing to try to understand the complex explanations for why people do things that we consider immoral, it will make it very difficult to explain to them why they should not do those things. If we refuse to distinguish between the biological/social explanations of sin and the moral factors that make sin wrong, we will make all sorts of mistakes in identification of what is actually sinful. We will be unable to name sin as sin, because we will be confused about which thing is sinful. In some cases, we might not even be able to identify the consequences of sin. One consequence of violence is that it tends to lead to more violence. If violence in a certain situation is wrong (and I'm not assuming it always is), then it might be wrong exactly because it will provoke the other person to violence in return. That doesn't justify or excuse the second violent act. It simply explains why it happened and serves as an argument not to engage in violence in such cases in the future, since they will most likely lead to the same bad consequences. That sort of reasoning is out of bounds once we stop explaining sin in terms of what led to it. It would be truly unfortunate if we could not use such arguments to discourage evil.
Now I want to be clear that it's possible to use explanations as a way of not admitting that you've done something wrong. People do that sort of thing, and I'm sure it's what Powlison thinks is going on in the particular case he discusses. Maybe it is what's going on in the particular case he's talking about. I wouldn't know. My problem is that he doesn't stop at saying that this is something that does happen that is bad. He treats such explanations as immoral, as if they can be used only alongside a motivation to hide sin. I contend that they are not immoral in themselves but are merely pursuits of knowledge. They can be used as poor excuses for not admitting sin, but they need not be used in such a way, and someone who is paying attention to the important moral distinctions that I've tried to make clear in this post should not automatically take an explanation for sin (or for a precondition of sin) as an attempt to hide sin, since that is not always its purpose. In fact, those who do not want to excuse or justify sin still need to be aware of the complex explanations behind sin and its preconditions if we are to be informed and thoughtful about the society we live in and the situations that may increase sin in the world when we might be able to do something about it.
I wish Powlison had simply identified the fallacy in thinking an explanation is an excuse. Instead, he has promoted that fallacy as correct and then stated implausibly that homosexuality is a choice. It certainly doesn't feel like a choice to those who find themselves attracted to people of the same sex. Its explanation is indeed more complicated than he allows, and that just makes people who take a biblical stance on the issue look bad for not recognizing sociological and biological observations that sure seem correct.