On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court issued the majority opinion in Obergefell et. al. v. Hodges, which consolidated four cases addressing the constitutionality of state bans on same-sex marriage. Led by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the majority found state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Piggybacking off of the 14th amendment, the Supreme Court made sexual orientation a protected category, analogous to race, using cosmological language about the greater good that comes to all when homosexual sexual relationships are allowed to flourish under the invention of a new kind of marriage. Gay marriage is now the law of the land. This public policy change to the definition of marriage commands a redefinition of personhood.
Arguments by analogy always lose something in translation, as apples and bicycles don’t have nearly as much in common as their proponents think. And ever since the SCOTUS decision, all ontological hell seems to have broken loose. Many celebrity Christians have laid down their cards: they reject biblical inerrancy (and really always have) and embrace gay-affirming theology, keeping in step with seeker-friendly visions. A video featuring a medical director of Planned Parenthood trafficking fetus body parts over arugula salad and salmon has gone viral. Christian business owners face gag orders for living vocationally for the glory of God. It seems now that there are two kinds of “Christians”: the revisionists who sport a “high regard” for scripture with a correspondingly dreadfully low literacy of it, standing proudly with their rainbow flags on the right side of history, and the rest of us bigots on the other. We seem to have entered some Orwellian nightmare, where the wages of sin is no longer death, but a false and misleading travesty of grace. This might even make one long for the good old days when worldview conflicts involved atheists.
Of course, I have no right to complain.
The blood is on my hands.
For a decade, I lived as a lesbian who advanced the cause of gay rights.
The world we see today is the one I helped create.
In 1996, when DOMA was first passed, I grieved with my people. And today, after the Supreme Court has made gay marriage the law of the land, I grieve with my people.
I am also a scholar of the 19th century, a whole-book-history-of-ideas former professor of English (who now only professes from the homeschool table). And like others of my ilk, I know that sexual orientation is an invented category of personhood. Indeed, even from the old feminist perspective that I sported back in the day, I knew that sexual orientation as an identity was a category mistake.
The concept of sexual orientation was first used by Sigmund Freud, and its effect, if not intent, was to radically re-situate sexuality from its creational (biblical) context to something completely new: the foundational drive that determines and defines human identity. Nothing short of personhood was at stake. By defining humanity according to sexual desires and segregating it according to its gendered object, Freud was–intentionally or not–suppressing the biblical category of being made in God’s image male and female, and replacing it with an invented category, that of sexual identity. In both intent and language use, Freud took aim at the Bible’s authority to diagnose gender and sexuality dysfunctions and prescribe solutions for them. This was no innocent move. Throughout his career, Freud maintained the belief that the God of the Bible was a “universal obsessional neurosis.”
Freud himself was a product of German romanticism, a movement typified by an uncontested embrace of personal experience, not merely as self-expression or self-representation, but also as epistemology and personal identity (that is, who I am ontologically). Romanticism claimed that you know truth through the lens of your personal experience, and that no overriding or objective opposition can challenge the primal wisdom of someone’s subjective frame of intelligibility. In Romanticism, this knowing and being known is identity-rooted and identity-expressive. Romanticism went beyond a solipsistic me-centered understanding of selfhood. Romanticism went a step further to declare personal feelings and experiences as epistemological gold, the most reliable measure and means of discerning truth.
Both theological and philosophical issues are at stake here. The theological issue is the development of a category of personhood that rejects the idea that original sin distorts us, actual sin distracts us, and indwelling sin manipulates us. Especially in rejecting original sin, the Romantics staked out their claim in the belief of the inherent goodness and divinity of humanity. The philosophical issue is epistemology and the role of personal experience, elevating personal experience to a high form of knowledge, and rejecting the need to critique it from the outside.
The nineteenth century category of sexual orientation reflects Romanticism’s claim on epistemology, redefining men and women from people who are made in God’s image with souls that will last forever to people whose sexual drives and gender identifications define them and liberate them (supposedly) and set them apart as an “improved” model of personhood. Indeed, while the Christian maintains that image-bearing is what distinguishes humans from animals, the nineteenth century ushered in a new measure of man, one for whom the gendered object of sexual desire became the defining marker. Thus, sexual orientation is a neologism, and it creates fictional identities that rob people of their true one: male and female image bearers.
Sexual orientation is a word that extends the definition of sexuality beyond logical confines. Biblically speaking, sexuality is teleological. But the category of sexual orientation moved sexuality from verb (practice) to noun (person) and with this grammatical move, a new concept of personhood was born–the idea that we are oriented or framed by our sexual desires; that our different sexual desires and different objects of desire made up separate species of people that self-representation and identity rooted now in sexual orientation, and not in the purposes of God for his image bearers. In the words of Michel Foucault, the famous French historian of ideas who died of AIDS in 1980, for the first time in the history of ideas, in the 19th century, “homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality….when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy into a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was a new species” (History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, introduction (p.42). Prior to the nineteenth century category mistake of the sexual orientation, no one’s sexual practice or sexual desire prescribed personhood.
Sexual orientation went from a categorical invention to heralded immortal truth in one hundred years, taking away the concept of our being created in God’s image and bearing an eternal soul in its wake. It is now a term embraced uncritically by believers and unbelievers alike. This category mistake is so “real” in the minds of the five Supreme Court justices that it warranted changing the constitution to make room for its progeny. As believers, we must be clear: personal identity based on sexual orientation defines self-hood as the sum total of our fallen human desires. Through it, we get no glimpse of how the covenant of grace defends our real identity in Christ, or why, say, biblical marriage is a God-designed creation ordinance and a living reflection of Christ and the Church, not merely a man-made convenience for pair-bonding or affection.
The root tragedy of the recent SCOTUS decision is not merely bad public policy.
The root tragedy of the recent SCOTUS decision is not the dire religious liberty persecutions Christians endure now and will continue to shoulder.
The root tragedy of SCOTUS is not even found in the gross display of error and arrogance in the Supreme Court of the United States of America changing the definition of personhood by fiat based on a 19th century category mistake.
The root of the tragedy of the SCOTUS decision is that sexual orientation as a category of personhood is both too much and too little all at once, too weighty for the soul to bear and not capacious enough to portray God’s power to redeem, transform, lay down his life, and live again in and through His people. We are a Galatians 2:20 people, having been crucified with Christ so that we no longer live, but Christ alone lives in us. We died. We stand only in the risen Christ. This is as true and universal for those among us who struggle with same sex desire as it is for those who struggle with other sinful distortions of the fall, other indwelling sin patterns.
In 1999, it was hard to leave my girlfriend and the lesbian community we helped make.
Rejecting a lover you can touch and see for a God you cannot is an arduous heavy cross, only possible with the faith that God alone gives to His people.
Jesus tells us: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls, for My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11: 28-30). These are sweet words, words of balm to the soul, words that protect and dignify the image bearer of God. Words that render sinners and outcasts daughters and sons of the living God. Words that reveal that the threshold to God is repentance.
But identity cannot be in sexual orientation (the religion of the day) and the triune God at the same time.
You just can’t bypass repentance to get God’s grace, in spite of what the Supreme Court has decided.
Rosaria Butterfield, former tenured professor of English and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University and author of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Crown and Covenant, 2012) and Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ (Crown and Covenant, 2015), is married to Kent Butterfield, pastor of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Durham (NC).