Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 9, Sexuality

My guess is that this will likely be the most provocative post of this series as I'll be wading into some troubled waters.

Perhaps the most obvious moral/political contrast between progressive Christianity and evangelical Christianity is in the progressive acceptance and embrace of LGBTQ persons. For post-evangelicals, their journey into progressive Christianity is often triggered by a change in their attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, a journey from exclusion to embrace.

As a post-progressive, I also embrace the LGBTQ community. And yet, as a post-progressive I have some concerns with how the case for this inclusion is sometimes argued among progressive Christians.

Because cisgendered heterosexuality is rooted in a statistical biological norm within the human species (more on that in a minute), it has become a moral norm within many human cultures. And that moral norm has been used to oppress and stigmatize sexual minorities.

Now, wanting to undermine that moral norm, as a location of oppression, many within progressive Christian circles push to undermine or deny the biological norm. When careful, progressive Christians hold to the distinctions between sex and gender. Sex is biological, rooted in our genes and their phenotypic expressions (e.g., primary and secondary sexual characteristics like genitalia and reproductive anatomy). Gender, by contrast, is a social construction, cultural norms and expectations about what is or is not appropriate for sexed persons.

By "biological norm" I simply mean the biological complementarity between genotype and phenotype (primary and secondary sexual/reproductive characteristics) necessary for human  reproduction. For example, it's a "biological norm" that humans have two kidneys, though not everyone does (1 in every 750 people is born with only one kidney).  

Again, when careful, progressive Christians police the sex/gender, biology/culture, distinctions. But in my opinion, progressive Christians are increasingly less careful, leading to my post-progressive stance on this issue.

Specifically, the progressive rejection of a "gender binary" (e.g., cultural norms governing roles and  behavior for sexed persons), is increasingly sliding into a denial and/or stigmatization of the "sexual binary" at the heart of human reproduction. This rejection of the genetic and phenotypic complementarity involved in human reproduction generally manifests in the shaming of or moralizing cisgender heterosexuality, and sometimes manifests in an outright denial of biological facts.

Let me be clear, I appreciate the social justice goals behind these efforts. Again, as a post-progressive I applaud efforts to embrace the LGBTQ community. And yet, I find this particular trend within progressive Christianity--undermining, stigmatizing, or denying the biological complementarity at the heart of human reproduction--to be very problematic. As a post-progressive Christian, I think we can get to the moral position we want to get to without denying some very obvious facts about human biology, sexuality, and reproduction.

Let me say this bluntly, I think there's some science denialism at work within progressive Christianity, similar to what we see within evangelicalism. Reproductive biology for many progressive Christians is similar to climate science for evangelicals. For both groups, facts are denied in order to support a moral/political agenda.

Now, a quick comeback response to this observation about genotypic and phenotypic biological complementarity is this: What about intersex persons? Doesn't the existence of intersex persons undermine any claim for "biological norms"?

This common objection regarding intersex persons reveals the degree of scientific illiteracy (and denialism) at work in progressive circles. Again, it is akin to climate change denialism within evangelicalism. Specifically, normativity is a statistical concept regarding the distribution and frequency of observations. Think of the bell curve. You can't draw an observation from the tail end of the bell curve and use that observation to deny the existence of the bell curve. That's like an evangelical Christian looking at snow falling and saying, "See, there's no global warming!" A statistically infrequent phenomenon doesn't change the distributional realities. Normativity, as a statistical, distributional concept, doesn't mean universal, holding in every single instance. A cold winter day doesn't change the distributional climate data. A person born with a single kidney isn't an argument that the great majority us don't have two. And neither do intersex persons change the statistical frequencies of XX and XY genotypes and phenotypes within the general population, that the majority of the population is biologically/sexually born male or female. 

Now, it's at this point where we can launch into a long and complicated conversation about three huge, complex and interrelated issues: nature vs. nurture (e.g., the impact of environment upon phenotypic expression), the impact of culture on sex and gender, and the fact that there is significant statistical and cultural variability in gender expression, sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and cultural norms regulating sexual ethics and family structure. Issues, concerns, objections, and questions can be raised all over the place, but I can't and won't chase down, qualify, and nuance everything I've said or am about to say. I know there's a lot to talk about and debate, but I don't want push this post into TL;DR territory.

So let me just say this: The genotype/phenotype complementarity necessary for human biological reproduction generally (i.e, statistically) produces the psychological and behavioral expressions we label "cisgender" and "heterosexuality." That is to say, the phenotypic expressions we label "male" and "female" correspond to an underlying genetic complementarity that makes human reproduction possible, behaviorally (e.g., sexual desire), anatomically (e.g., genitalia), and chromosomally (e.g., sperm and egg cells). In short, cisgender heterosexuality is rooted in a biological norm of genotype/phenotype complementarity.

Given the state of the conversation today about gender and sexuality, it seems risky to say something like that, something that seems so factual obvious, that men and women, sexually speaking, have intercourse to create babies. Across the vast expanse of human history, the vast majority of us--gay, straight, cisgender, transgender, intersex, and on and on, from drag queens to Southern Baptist pastors--came into existence because a XX human had sexual intercourse with a XY human. We call this in biological sciences "human reproduction." You can look it up, it's a real thing.

All that to say this: To ignore, question, or doubt that biological/sexual complementarity, in both its genotypic and phenotypic expressions, sits at the absolute heart of human reproduction and sexuality borders on the delusional. Again, it's akin to science denialism.

Now the worry, again, the reason why people flirt with delusion, is because these obvious biological facts are leveraged for moral and political ends. The very word "norm" makes us queasy because it implies there's an "abnormal," and it's a short train ride from "abnormal" to diseased, pathological and sinful. I get that, I really do. I see the concern that admitting to biological realities gives too much of the cultural argument away. Granting the facts, it seems, is too risky and dangerous an admission.

But there is a cost to ignoring or stigmatizing the facts. In debates you come across as crazy rather than reasonable, making it hard to persuade people. I think there are better ways to make the argument for the church to embrace LGBTQ persons than denying or stigmatizing biological facts. For example, if God knows your name and the number of hairs on your head then God cares about your unique particularity. God doesn't just love "the majority," "the norm," and all those within a standard deviation of the mean on the bell curve. God loves you, in all your one-of-a-kind statistical uniqueness, genetics included. In some metric or another, we're all "abnormal" to some degree. And that "abnormality" doesn't affect God's love for us one whit.

See? We can make good theological arguments admitting and using the statistical and biological facts. We don't need to deny the obvious. The existence, say, of intersex persons doesn't refute the factual reality that genetic and phenotypic complementarity is the biological, reproductive norm. And the existence of a biological, reproductive norm doesn't refute the fact that every particular instance of God's very good, originally blessed creation, such as an intersex person, is loved by God exactly as they are, in their uniqueness. Statistical frequency is never evidence for or against divine favor or disfavor. If anything, all through the Bible we find God loving the tail ends of the distribution, the edges, the leftovers, the margins, the remnant. God leaves the ninety nine sheep to find the one. God doesn't love according to the bell curve.

But beyond looking delusional, there's another risk of denying or stigmatizing the reality of biological complementarity, and it goes to the heart of this post. Again, across the vast expanse of human history the vast majority of us came into existence because, in the words of Genesis, God created them "male and female" and said to them "be fruitful and multiply." This creational and incarnational grace brought us into existence, gave us life. And to deny, discount, demean, shame, stigmatize or demonize this grace does great damage to our theologies of creation and incarnation. To demonize the grace that gave us life is, I would argue, edging very close to blaspheming the Holy Spirit. I think it's possible to say "Thank You" to this grace while still fighting for social justice for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. It's as simple as calling home on Mother's Day.

And even if our evangelical parents rejected us because our sexual orientation or gender expression, there's still gratitude to God for the sperm and egg biology that gave us life. 

To be clear, this is not to say that the creational and incarnational grace that gave us life hasn't been used to hurt, marginalize and kill sexual minorities. Those texts in Genesis have been used as weapons. And that is also blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, taking the good and making it evil. Genetic complementarity along with its cisgendered heterosexual phenotypic expressions has been and is used to justify evil against LGBTQ persons. That evil needs to be fought and resisted. Lives are a stake.

And yet, shaming cisgender heterosexuality as "problematic" is a very poor tactic, scientifically and theologically. Scientifically, you come across as delusional, as denying some very obvious biological facts necessary for human reproduction. And theologically, you demonize the creational and incarnational grace that gives us life. So in my opinion, I think there are better arguments for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the church.

And so, the contrast...

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I fiercely embrace my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I believe that any vision of sexuality that denies or shames the biological complementarity involved in human reproduction is an example of science denialism and does great damage to our theologies of creation and incarnation. I reject a Christianity that cannot say a joyful "Thank You" in celebrating the creational and incarnational grace that gives us life.

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