Moral dilemmas are our gadflies, the weak spots of any philosophy, and by extension, of any religion. When one highly esteemed virtue battles with another of equal merit, reflective people the world over turn to their philosophy or faith to make peace between the two. But how would your favorite life-enhancing ethic deal with the following:

  • Does your duty to “crown & country” outweigh your duty to “hearth & home”?
  • Is it better to teach your child that “patriotism” or “human rights” represent the higher standard?
  • How do you determine the value of a human life?

Under the weight of these and similar dilemmas, any philosophy or faith can eventually buckle, and thereby (a) yield up deplorably inadequate advice, (b) cloud the issue with so much ambiguity that it could justify any action (or non-action) whatsoever, or (c) for most, simply leave us to follow our ephemeral emotional reaction unencumbered by genuine adult thinking.

Over the past 2 weeks, I have played both witness and provocateur for such a moral dilemma. If you like, you can follow my online conversation with my counterpart, a Midwest Evangelical minister named Scott. He has appeared on the “A Christian and an Atheist” podcast. Scott is not a biblical literalist, although I think it is fair to say that he still strongly reveres the Bible. He has said that the Bible contains the message that “God wants us to know.” So I was a bit surprised when, taking a moment to discuss his attitudes toward homosexuality on the most recent podcast, he hinted at a personal moral dilemma. See if you notice it:

There are all kinds of behaviors that are listed in the Bible as sinful, and you know what? I engage in a lot of them. But the core of the teaching of Jesus is that I have no right to stand in judgment over somebody, even if they are practicing a sin. ... I could point at a homosexual and say, "You're practicing homosexuality, [which] the Bible calls a sin, but you know what? I practice 10 other things that the Bible calls a sin. How can we talk about this?" I think there is room at the table for people who are struggling with all kinds of different behaviors.

Here’s his dilemma: Scott wants to build and maintain a relationship. At the same time, Scott has to deal with homosexuals whose behavior is condemned in the Bible, and Scott reveres the Bible. He is really stuck, because as he later said, he thinks the only Christian response to gay people is to love them, but at the same time, the Bible insists that he hold their relationships in second class status, at best.

Now to be honest, Scott wavered between positions. Sometimes his training in conservative Christianity would shine through his posts, such as his response when I asked what was different about sex between a monogamous gay couple and his own relationships with his wife:

In terms of human sexuality, the same argument could be used to justify just about ANY kind of sexual activity...

- How can you say homosexuality is wrong? The only difference is the gender of the people involved.
- How can you say pedophilia is wrong? The only difference is the age of the people involved.
- How can you say necrophilia is wrong? The only difference is the biological status of the people involved.
- How can you say bestiality is wrong? The only difference is the species involved.

Now, I do NOT mean to equate a monogamous homosexual relationship with pedophilia, and I hope I didn't come across as that insensitive, but I did want to make the point that (for me at least) the morality of homosexuality is not based on how similar or different homosexuality is from heterosexuality. It is based on how closely the practice of homosexuality aligns with the teaching of the Bible.

Then at other times he almost sounded like he was ready to sign on for gay marriage:

This leaves us a handful (and by "handful" I mean "two"---one in 1 Corinthians 6 the other in Romans 1) of passages in the NT. Both of these passages are similar in that they were written by Paul, do not explicitly state a moral imperative ("Thou shalt not..."), and use homosexuality as examples for a larger argument (in other words, the point of the passage is NOT to prohibit homosexuality but to give a broader moral or theological teaching).

The difficulty with Paul is that he often interjects his own opinion into the teaching, and sometimes blatantly distinguishes his own opinion from the moral teaching (1 Corinthians 7). He also has a penchant for overly harsh and hyperbolic language, like when he says that he wishes a certain group of people would castrate themselves (Galatians 5). These observations cause me to ask the questions, "Was Paul teaching homosexuality was prohibited, and thus making a statement which is morally binding for Christians today? Or, was he citing his own feelings about homosexuality in order to make a point about something else, and thus making a statement which is NOT morally binding for Christians today." To be honest, I fluctuate back and forth on this point.

But the dilemma is never resolved; he inevitably returned to the need to maintain a relationship with (to love) the gay person, but still embrace his bible by denying the Christian gay person equality within his church.

As I have said in other places, I refuse to pick up the anxiety that belong to other people, particularly around issues like that (even though in our culture it is almost a social expectation that people will say, “Oh, that’s alright. At least you’ve come this far”). So I violated some fairly standard social rules by holding up a mirror to Scott’s moral dilemma. I’m not certain I won any friends in doing so.

Nonetheless, I was reminded today of the movie, Sophie's Choice, and it brought to mind Scott's responses to my questions and the subsequent dialogue. I began to wonder to myself if Scott is in the midst of a "Sophie's choice"-style moral dilemma.

Just a summary of the movie: A Nazi concentration camp guard told Sophie Zawistowski that she would have to choose which of her two children would be sent to the gas chamber. If she didn't choose, they would both die. It was a horrible position to be put in, and it turned her love of both of them into torture for her. The choosing altered her perception of herself and of her life for its duration.

Perhaps Scott feels a similar tug here. Sophie loved both of her children. Scott cherishes the messages within the Bible and yet strongly values interpersonal love and building relationships. And in a way that strongly suggests doubts, I keep asking him, how does he imagine a way that he can have both his beloved relationships and his beloved bible? How is it possible for him to genuinely love gay couples when he cannot accept them as equally Christian alongside him?

Perhaps if this metaphor has any validity, in Scott's mind I may have acted like the concentration camp guard, forcing him to choose between two cherished elements of his faith. But I don’t think so. All I have done is ask the question. Since other Christians who cherish their Bible just as much as he does have reached different conclusions, I think it is his church, its traditions, and his Bible interpretation that has placed him in this difficult position. It is up to Scott to decide if he can still cling to his Bible interpretations while simultaneously loving those who practice the "love that dare not speak its name." And whatever choice he makes, I dare say it might change the way he sees himself and his life ... perhaps for its duration.

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Comment by Buffy on July 27, 2008 at 12:25am
Maybe it's time for Scott, and others like him, to stop valuing a book over human beings. Sadly I don't think that will happen any time soon.



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