Dianna Anderson (no relation) recently penned a very spirited critique of my recent essay on why I am opposed to gay marriage. I had been notified about the essay a while ago: in fact, a reader asked me about the comments and I suggested that I would not be responding because I didn’t think it allowed for any meaningful conversation.* Why now? Therein lies a tale, which I will take up below.

While she alludes to other concerns she has with my essay, Dianna takes issue with my suggestion that in the debate over gay marriage, someone is deceived. As she puts it:

[Matthew Anderson] is allowed to say what he wants because he is positioned as having a monopoly on the moral rightness of his married love. I, as a single, bisexual woman, have not the moral authority to speak on the issue because I am deceived, I have interpreted my own life incorrectly, and I am necessarily wrong – not because I am an inhuman beast, but because “objective” moral reasoning necessarily carries dehumanization of the subject as a consequence.

You can read the part that Dianna is referencing for yourself, in section six.**  The criticism is surprising to me, as I actually meant that section as something of a unifying moment in the piece. Having made the bulk of my argument against gay marriage, my intent was to highlight a puzzle about the debate that everyone has to address. I think those who approve of gay marriage are wrong to do so—but I think it’s possible I’m self-deceived as well. That possibility is one that unites us all.

And Dianna’s rejoinder proves my point. For her, my alleged failure to engage in what Dianna calls “empathy” is an indication of my captivity to the Objective Male form of reasoning, which has allowed me to judge others and “dehumanize” them. It’s fair to conclude, I think, that Dianna would suggest that I’m ‘deceived’ in my moral conclusions, that I have in fact interpreted my “life” and world incorrectly, especially if I have listened to those who do identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Dianna’s moral conclusion about me may not ‘dehumanize’ me. But I have no way of seeing how I am anything but deluded in my conviction that the moral conclusions are compatible with a serious interest in and care for the lives of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals. Perhaps Dianna would suggest I am a bigot, as she has concluded of others. (How such a conclusion is any less ‘dehumanizing’ than the conclusion that gay sex is morally wrong, I have no idea.)

But Dianna goes one step further, suggesting that I have taken “objective reason into a space that is inherently unreasonable,” namely the nature of love. But if critically reflecting on other people’s desires is inherently dehumanizing, then sexual ethics becomes impossible as ethics.*** Is it ‘dehumanizing’ to reflect about, say, the sexual desires that two consenting brothers have for each other? Why? Or any number of other formerly deviant sexual desires? Is it dehumanizing to deliberate about the moral permissibility of using sex dolls?  On what basis can we even ask the question of what counts as a deviant sexual desire, since reflecting about another’s sexuality strips them of their humanity?

Ethical reflection requires not simply what we give ourselves permission to do, but what we will approve in the lives of others. To think otherwise is to treat ourselves as islands, isolated from each other with impenetrable walls surrounding us. But no one lives that way, even if we occasionally think that way.  Identifying what we should approve requires reasoning together, that is, talking together in a manner where we exchange reasons for our positions.

And it is just such reasoning together that Dianna candidly acknowledges her view forecloses. The “empathy” Dianna seeks is functionally approval: it is impossible on her view that a person might listen patiently, closely, and sympathetically to the stories and lives of those with same-sex sexual desires and still conclude that such desires are morally disordered. But by foreclosing the question of the permissibility of such desires, she treats her own moral outlook as immune from any “moral blind spots”: her sexual ethics cannot be self critical, because that requires the possibility of being wrong. And having staked her ‘humanity’ on this singular moral position, such that anyone who disagrees has dehumanized her, she certainly cannot bear any criticisms from outside herself. Diana’s position is a sophisticated moral solipsism, turned in on itself and no longer able to countenance dissenting opinions or reasons from the outside. It is a vicious form of moral pride, precisely because it must deny the possibility of self-deception. If this is what the confident progressive Christian account requires, conservative Christians should take hope.

There is also a considerable anthropological gap between Dianna and me that is worth highlighting. There is nothing magical about an ‘orientation’ that means the regular and stable set of sexual desires that it identifies should be exempt from moral scrutiny, as Dianna seems to think. The language of ‘orientation’ helpfully describes a phenomenon: but if the sexual content of one instance of desire is morally wrong, the mere fact that such desires are reoccurring in a person’s life does not provide any meaningful moral absolution for them, even if they so pervade a person’s self-understanding that they become a part of their identity (whatever that is).

Dianna might suggest that evaluating any sexual desire between consenting adults is “dehumanizing”, as long as such desires do not harm anyone.**** But if that is her view, it suffers from a number of problems. For one, it’s just not clear why we should accept “consent” and “harm” as sacred moral categories that we can somehow use to evaluate other people’s sexual desires while the categories I deployed are necessarily “dehumanizing.” Consent and harm offer reasons why certain sexual acts are right or wrong, after all, and for Dianna love escapes “reason.”

But consent and harm also can’t meaningfully deliver conclusions on a number of situations: they are, at the very least, way too thin to be meaningfully Christian. What of the sexual desires of two adult brothers who are seeking a fruitful, flourishing, incestuous relationship because they are experiencing great spiritual fruit in their relationship? Or the sexual desires of someone who chooses to make love to a sex doll? Or an adult pedophile who, being committed to never harming a child, creates and watches pixel-porn, digitally created child pornography that harms no one and requires no consent?  The mere fact that a person regularly experiences sexual desires for a given sex (or both sexes) tells us nothing about the moral appropriateness of those desires, and no gussying that phenomenon up with the language of ‘orientation’ or simply considering those desires through the lens of consent and harm can escape that fact.

Contra Dianna, in fact, my proposal that those who disagree with the traditional view are in some manner ‘deceived’ humanizes them by treating them as real moral agents, capable of reflection about their lives and their world and of coming to different moral conclusions than those they have reached. It dignifies their moral freedom, that is, and views them as agents with a moral character that can be formed and mal-formed regardless of whether anyone else in the world is ‘harmed’ by their desires. If anyone’s position dehumanizes those with gay or lesbian sexual desires, it is Dianna’s, for it puts an end to inquiring about the normative shape of the moral order and whether one has, in fact, arrived at the wrong conclusions about it.

Why write this now? I had said that I was not going to respond to Dianna’s piece on grounds that I didn’t think reasonable discussion was possible. Dianna affirmed my intuition on Twitter, suggesting that to try to say anything would dehumanize her further.

My motivation is that I needed to clear up a tweet that I sent out which contained the conclusion of my train of reasoning, but not the reasoning itself. I was struck by progressive Christian Rachel Held Evans’s effusive admiration for the essay. The conversation which ensued with Evans was curious, given that she went on to indicate that she appreciated Dianna’s point but seemed to prefer arguments against my view that Dianna didn’t make in the post. I confess myself at a loss now about what Evans makes of Dianna’s essay, given that she was willing to give it a ‘standing ovation’ before telling me she didn’t agree with it 100% but never signaling anything she disagrees with about the essay itself. My hope is that she misread it and did not realize that it commits her to an account of sexual ethics that is not only far more permissive than Scripture, but unremittingly hostile toward traditional Christians.

Evans’s perspective is important on these questions, of course, precisely because her audience is considerable and she is an authoritative figure in the progressive Christian world.  I suspect Evans neither likes nor agrees with the idea of completely closing down debate on this question. But Dianna and I agree about one main thing: logic can be cruel, and in this debate Dianna sees and has articulated the consequences of the progressive position on sexual ethics with a clarity and consistency we should all appreciate. Rachel has suggested in the past that Russell Moore and those like him have “suicides on our conscience” for our views; but given that, it’s hard to avoid Dianna’s position that conservatives should not be reasoned with, but shamed and shouted down. People live with inconsistencies all the time, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of making inconsistency a virtue. Progressive Christians like Evans, who are trying to leave room for conservatives within the church, may not like Dianna’s conclusions: but that is different than providing arguments for why they do not follow from positions they have already committed themselves to.

*My actual comment: “Given that Dianna says these things are outside the boundaries of reason altogether, I’m not very confident we will have a very meaningful or productive disagreement about things.”

** As our last names are the same, I’m going to use her first name, in hopes she won’t take it as a sign of disrespect.

*** This was the claim which got me into such trouble on Twitter.

****Whether this is her view, I do not know. I put it here as a possibility.

Update: Dianna Anderson has responded here.  I am not going to write a full response, as given her position it is clear to me that any further conversation about this will be taken as simply reinforcing her point. Which I think proves mine.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Adam Puma Borsay

    And the key point, that RHE and others have yet to admit to, is that there is NO THIRD WAY. Either the traditional view is an abomination that directly leads to suicide and death, or, the progressive view is leading people to hell as an act of deliberate and willfull rejection of God’s will in their life.

    How can someone like David Gushee claim that traditional sexual ethics is destroying lives, yet we can still be gentle with those who are doing the destroying? How can RHE give a standing ovation to someone who argues that the traditionalists must be shouted down and still claim to caring about and wanting to foster dialogue?

    • Your second paragraph might help answer the first. Let me preface this by stating that I agree with Matt and with the traditional understanding of Christian sexual ethics. How can people like us claim that progressive sexual ethics is destroying lives yet we can still be gentle… Our answer to that might answer your form of the question. I could be wrong, but what if the progressive argument is not so much an argument (or a reasoned intellectual position) as a rhetorical tactic? Let me put it this way. When I read tweets and posts by Evans, there is an intensity there that shocks me. Not so much “let me persuade you as to why your position is wrong” as “how *dare* you think or say that!?! look at the terrible *harm* your beliefs cause!” My impression is that such rhetoric is meant primarily to shame and bully into silence and submission those who hold contrary views – and I’m not sure people are aware of this. It also raises the question of what’s really behind these (pseudo-?)arguments. Guilt over how badly traditional Christians have handled these questions in the past? I would agree with that critique, but that’s not a reason to throw out traditional understandings of Scripture and Christian sexual ethics.

      If that is so (and I’m struggling to grasp all this myself), if we’re dealing with tactics as much as we are dealing with convictions (and that’s a big if), then perhaps there is actually a third way. Where Gushee and Evans and other progressives can say, “We think you guys are wrong, terribly wrong, but you don’t need to be shouted down, sued into oblivion, and so on”. Frankly, I’d like to put the ball in their court on this. Let *them* answer your fine questions.

      Now, I once challenged Matt on the idea we can “foster dialogue” with progressives if we’re not going to change our mind, and we are convinced they’re wrong. He had a decent answer, which might apply here as well. May the Holy Spirit grant us some insight.

      • Adam Puma Borsay

        You are right to think of these as tactics and not convictions. The arguments for a “third way” are beginning to grow dimmer as more cultural capital is built up for the movement to affirm LGBT individuals sexual practices within the Church. The logical outcome of their arguments necessitates a silencing of the voices that they contend advocate for “dehumanization”. The “third way” was simply a tactic to get accommodation and a place at the table which would allow them to eventually push out those who disagreed.

        The difference for the traditional position, and its advocates, is that they have never accepted the possibility of this “third way”. They have always held firm that it was an incongruous behavior to Christian ethics. Whether one agrees with that position(which I do) they have to at least admit that they have spoken with clarity and honesty about their position from the very beginning.

        • Wildcard

          The problem being that this is a free country, and we have no reason we should live under Christian rule, (your interpretation or otherwise). We have tried and for hundreds of years Christianity was given preferential treatment, America as a country has done many good things and horrible things, one of which is holding back gay people from the rights they are guaranteed in the constitution.

          We tried your way, it resulted in failure and misery for thousands, maybe millions of people. So we have a better way and we are using it.

          • eddiestardust

            So your “better way” is to dehumanize every who is in fact not gay? Actions, speak louder than words. How people live their lives out speaks so loudly we cannot hear what you say.

          • Wildcard

            Proofread next time please. No the viewpoint does not dehumanize everyone who is not gay. Your actions do not speak well of you if you vote to remove people’s choices. No matter how much you say you “love” them.

  • tb03

    Homosexuality is innate and inherent. Incest, sexual fetishes, criminal sexual assault and exploitation are not. Anyone that resorts to comparing gays to pedophiles to make their point doesn’t have a point to make.

    • Jared

      There’s actually more evidence that pedophiles are “born that way” than homosexuals.

    • Patrick

      All are behaviors. Choices we make to act on feelings, whether the fact that we have those feelings was our choice or not.

      • tb03

        No, homosexuality is not a behavior. It’s a sexual orientation which is a human characteristic. Sex is a behavior.

        • Patrick

          So why is pedophilia not then an orientation? Strange how we determine whether things are orientations based on “whether it hurts someone else” Not a logical argument.

          • tb03

            Pedophilia is a mental illness. If acted upon it’s a crime. This is not difficult

          • Patrick

            It’s a mental illness because you say it is? Forgive me if I don’t just take your word for it.

          • Patrick

            Homo/bi were not viewed as “normal” until very recently. So give it about 30 yrs, and pedophilia will likely be viewed as “normal”. Doesn’t make any of them right.

  • Bethany Persons

    I think one thing this, uh, dialogue demonstrates is the fundamental differences in anthropology, theology, and ethics. We categorize desire, behaviour, and identity completely differently and in a way that makes it nearly impossible to find common ground to start from. And when we try to interpret the other’s, uh, argument, if we don’t account for the category changes it comes off as dehumanizing or crying bigot.

    I actually think that Matt does a good job of interpreting Dianna’s assumptions and logic, possibly better than she does herself. But then, I might be deceived.

  • Bethany Persons

    I also think it’s interesting that Dianna dismisses Matt’s argument and criticism on the basis of his sparkling privilege collection. What if I agree with him? My privilege collection isn’t quite as sparkly as his, but it’s close! What if Wesley Hill or Jackie Hill Perry (no relation) agree with Matt? Or do the three of us have a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome to the Patriarchy (TM) and are therefore unable to reason?

  • Bethany Persons

    A note about blog post organization – would it be possible to link your asterisks, wikipedia footnote style?

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  • Kyle Smith

    I was also surprised Rachel Evans endorsed that article. I also found her assertion that you as a white married male were incapable of entering the discussion extremely interesting. Definitely seems a step back from the equal voice feminism supposedly supports.