Healing Homosexuals: The Advice of St. Augustine

Healing Homosexuals: The Advice of St. Augustine

by Dr. Daniel Beck dalexbeck@yahoo.com

Therapy for homosexuality may soon replace creationism as the pet conservative Christian scientific cause. The LA Times recently (7/19/2000) devoted a long article to the proliferation of church ex-gay organizations and their funding. The article also noted that the scientific establishment was clearly at odds with these therapies:

In 1997, the American Psychological Assn. took an aggressive stance against therapy that seeks to turn gays from their sexual orientations. The group issued a statement suggesting that attempts to turn homosexuals straight carry a 'potential for harm.' Most mainstream psychologists believe homosexuality is 'the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors,' that is no different in most ways from heterosexual relationships, according to the group. 'The premise that homosexuality is a disorder is one that is no longer debatable,' said Clinton Anderson, the association's officer for lesbian, gay and bisexual concerns. 'But there is an issue when you say someone can change, but then they can't change, and that makes them a worse person. . . . There is a cycle of shame and humiliation.'

Advocates of healing therapies maintain that Scripture indicates otherwise. At stake here is an important evangelical issue. When the interpretation of Scripture collides with science, what is the best course to take? Do we harm or help the faith if we allow our reading of Scripture to be guided by the APA?

The most important doctor of the Latin church, St. Augustine (354 -430) actually addressed this issue. Late in life, he wrote a commentary on Genesis (De genesi ad litteram: On the Literal Meaning of Genesis) where he addressed the conflicts between science and the reading of Scripture. He offered three principles for Christians dealing with such conflicts.

Principle I:

Biblical Interpretation According to Personal Passions Only Harms the Faith

St. Augustine was keenly aware that Scriptural interpretation was not easy, and moreover, that it was dangerously prone to zealous subjective argumentation. As a result, he advocated a liberality of interpretation wherein the Church could be a home to a variety of interpretations. (See "On Christian Doctrine" [3.27.28] and the "Confessions" [12.31.42].) In the commentary on Genesis, however, he warned that idiosyncratic and headstrong interpretations of difficult passages were downright harmful to the progress of the faith because they revealed the infatuation of the interpreter more than the truth of Scripture.

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in the Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture, but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture. (De Genesi ad litteram, Book I, chapter 18)

Augustine advocated the idea of a Church where competing ideologies based on passions would need to find a common ground in the truth of a matter. The current debate over sexual healing could use this kind of Augustinian dispassion and willingness to incorporate information garnered from open, public, factual evidence.

Principle II:

Don't Presume to Speak as an Authority in Everything Simply Because You Read Your Bible

St. Augustine was as well-educated as any in his day. Yet he readily gave serious consideration to the opinions of those whom he saw as specialized in the natural sciences. More significantly, he saw it "disgraceful and dangerous" for Christians to speak presumptuous "nonsense" before due consideration of the facts. Such pronouncements he considered evangelically suicidal to the faith, because they alienated potential converts and obscured the more fundamental truths of Christianity.

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, this is a disgraceful and dangerous things for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumable giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these subjects; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of the Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. (De Genesi ad litteram, Book I, Chapter 19)

This warning of St. Augustine should serve as a challenge to those who assert that healing of homosexuality is possible. The intellectual future of the faith itself is at risk: casting one's lot with an indefensible position can substantially harm the case of the faith among people who are serious about truth.

Principle III:

The Truth of Scripture will Never Contradict Right Reason

St. Augustine consistently maintained that Scripture was the fundamental authority for the truth of Christian Faith. Yet he also believed in a God who created human minds capable of discerning truth. As a result, he was not eager to entertain just any interpretation of Genesis, but only those which conformed to reliable evidence about the world God had created. He trusted that right reason would confirm the truth of the revealed word, yet held the bar high for evidence. To him, a scientific theory supported by sound evidence is the truth, so Christians should read the Bible in light of this science. All scientific claims do not meet this criterion, however, so in some cases the Christians could rightly maintain their reading of Scripture against a theory of science.

When they are able, from reliable evidence (verax documentum), to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture. But when they produce from any of their books a theory contrary to Scripture, and therefore contrary to the Catholic faith, either we shall have some ability to demonstrate that is absolutely false, or at least we ourselves will hold it so without any shadow of a doubt. (Book I, Chapter 21)

In this author's opinion, St. Augustine is right on the money. The question of 'reliable evidence' should be the fundamental issue on the table in the current debate over sexuality. Is healing for homosexuality a testable fact or simply evidence of a misguided recalcitrance which will accomplish nothing but to close church doors to seekers of truth? To what extent are ex-gay therapies willing to be subject to critical analysis of their outcome? On the other hand, are the conclusions of the APA based on solid evidence or an example of an ephemeral scientific theory? The answers are not light or inconsequential: they are a matter of the future of the faith. At risk is the validity of the faith itself, because the Savior we proclaim is not only the Way and the Life, but also the Truth.


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