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01 May 2012

Unnatural Definitions

A couple months ago, Kirk Cameron caused a bit of an uproar when, in response to Piers Morgan asking him if he thought homosexuality was a sin, he said, "I think that it's unnatural." Predictably, the internet lit up with responses. One blogger wrote this parenthetical:
(You're also wrong about homosexuality being unnatural.... I mean, you're aware television is "unnatural," right? So are pants. So are eyeglasses, cell phones, indoor plumbing, the Growing Pains complete second season on DVD, and just about any weapon more complicated than a rock. The rule I would like to apply moving forward is that anyone using "unnatural" as an intrinsic reason for something being bad or wrong must commit to a life of Rousseauean simplicity in a location untrammeled by the unnatural accoutrements of human civilization. I recommend the forests of Papua New Guinea or any place in Siberia, so long as it is above the Arctic Circle [emphasis in original].)
Here is a similar, and intentionally ironic, argument from a Tumblr pic that is making its way around Facebook:
Being gay is not natural. Real Americans always reject unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester, and air conditioning [emphasis in original].
When conservative Christians use the term "unnatural," they do so with a specific intent and with a traditional understanding of its definition, and when progressives--Christian or otherwise--respond, they often misconstrue "unnatural" to mean "not occurring in the natural world" or "being human-made." If progressives truly hope to have a dialogue with conservative Christians in which to persuade or refute them, we need to have a shared sense of meaning.

So, what do conservative Christians mean by "unnatural?" We need to go back to Paul's letter to the Romans (1:26-27):
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural [κατα φυσιν] intercourse for unnatural [παρα φυσιν], and in the same way also the men, giving up natural [κατα φυσιν] 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. 
While there has been debate about proper translations of παρα φυσιν and κατα φυσιν [1][3], it seems reasonable that "contrary to nature" and "natural" are respectively appropriate translations of these phrases. The larger ancient discussion about "nature" was more a debate about cultural appropriateness as after-the-fact evidence of divine intention as opposed to a universalistic claim to natural law. Paul’s παρα φυσιν argument is intended to "maintain a gender stratified social order" of women as subordinate to men.[2] Paul’s larger argument, then, in this context is about the Western pro-family ideology first championed by Augustus out of political expediency.

When conservative Christians say "unnatural," they mean this in the biblical and historical tradition of "contrary to God's intended state of things," not "not found in the natural world." The distinction matters.

All that said, I want to stress that I think Cameron and others who claim that homosexuality is "unnatural," by either reckoning, are wrong. This, however, is beside my point in this post.

[1] Boswell, J. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago.
[2] Brooten, B. 1996. Love Between Women. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[3] Hays, R.B. 1986. "Relations Natural and Unnatural: a response to John Boswell’s exegesis of Romans 1." Journal of Religious Ethics 14:184-215.

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