In April of 2012, pastor and teacher, Doug Wilson spoke at Indiana University. Watch the entire event: Sexual By Design: Douglas Wilson in Bloomington, IN.
Below are my critical engagements and reflections with the presentation.
No doubt the topic of sexual orientation and identity is the most critical issue facing The Church and her relationship to culture. Any discussion will make ripples in our society, and Wilson’s presentation is one of the most viscerally engaging illustrations of this reality (no doubt exacerbated by being located in the home of the Kinsey Institute).
As I have stated before, I will not take a stance on the issue of sexual identity/orientation in this post, for reasons I have stated elsewhere. What I will do is critically engage with the content, and call Christians to do better, much better when it comes to our epistemologies and theologies.
1. Wilson begins with the premise that “things seem to be disintegrating/falling apart.”
Contention: This premise is simply assumed a priori, and is therefore circularly referential.
First, what is being evaluated and by what standards can this statement be made? From Wilson’s brand of Christianity, it’s based upon Wilson’s brand of Christianity. In other words, if you believe in certain moralities that govern cultural mores, then any deviance will thusly be evaluated as a disintegration. But that conviction can only be held if you a priori believe in a standard.
Second, others may consider the opposite, that the openness of the culture is actually a redemptive integration of the highest values and ethics of humanity. To therefore posit that things are “disintegrating,” when the world around you doesn’t see that, is to possibly lose credibility right out at the front.
I propose that all Christians ought to seriously and honestly evaluate our biases and assumptions closely, that we would have the highest levels of intellectual introspection, and actually step back from our convictions to first understand, and understand deeply in order to first empathize rather than argue.
2. Wilson argues that this disintegration is a result of different worldviews.
Contention: Wilson is wrong. The reality is that worldviews (and beliefs) are results, not causes, of behavior and experience.
Wilson argues that what you worship fundamentally drives everything we do. That worship, “service,” is what we value and we ultimately become what we worship and what we value. I concur. But while this is related and intertwined with worldviews, it is a distinctly different line of logic from what one believes and how one comes to hold the worldview that one holds.
Wilson’s conflation of these two confuses the argument, impugning–incorrectly–those who hold to different worldviews. If you hold to a worldview, Wilson essentially argues, it’s because you chose to worship (value) something a priori. Thus, in many ways, you are responsible for your worldview.
I propose that this is sociologically and philosophically inaccurate. Worldviews, as many have already described, are like glasses, that are already on us without our knowledge. We are unaware of our worldview, the biases and assumptions that govern and guide us. The closest we come towards understanding our worldview is when they are in conflict with another person’s worldview, or if we have radical paradigmatic shifts that “awaken” us to how we have seen this world. (Plato’s allegory of the cave is apropos here). How are our worldviews shaped and formed? Existentially, through our experiences. Specifically to this topic, the experience of same-sex attraction or the experience of knowing a loved-one struggling with sexual identity shapes our worldviews. It is NOT that we begin with an acceptance.
This truth applies to both Wilson’s worldviews and his opponents’. Recognizing this, by Wilson, would have assisted in bolstering his credibility with his audience (I opine) and would have helped temper his aggressive line of argumentation.
3. Wilson argues that this disintegration, as a result of different worldviews, is a theological assault.
Contention: A proper Christian view is to view disintegration as a condition of brokenness rather than an agenda of confrontation.
Apologists have a habit of playing victim (perhaps the result of the etymological background of the word “apology.”) As a result, the philosophical and theological language used towards others who see things differently is combative, and can tend towards ideological militancy. This shapes the line of argumentation used, and, yes, the worldview assumptions about opponents.
I suggest there is another, equally valid way, biblically, to argue, and that is to argue how the Christian way–the Jesus way–is the greatest path towards healing whatever disintegration there may be. I did not sense this from Wilson’s presentation. Why not argue more for wholeness, peace, Eden, and the values of love, relationship, intimacy, etc.?
Some may point out that Wilson attempted to do just that, referencing the primordial Adam and Eve. I would respond that the establishment of Adam and Eve as exemplars of God’s design is a functional particular which may not represent the illustrative or narrative whole. In other words, extracting the genders of Adam and Eve may miss and betray the bigger picture that is communicated through the Genesis narrative.
4. Wilson argues that you cannot believe ultimately reality is infinitely malleable and not believe that the world we live in is equally malleable.
Contention: Agree. But “equally malleable” does not mean “without morals/ethics.”
This line of argumentation is a binary approach to reality, a black and white, all-or-nothing perspective, dare I say, based upon a “modern” worldview. And, by simply stating that since a postmodern view is not “modern,” therefore it is wrong, is not a good argument. Ironically, it simply follows–hence the term postmodern.
The belief in malleability is not contrary to a belief in core convicted ethics. And belief that ethics and morals are subjected to context is not the same thing as saying that ethics and morals do not exist. I suggest that postmodernity is derided proportionally to how it is misrepresented.
5. Wilson proposes that Christians want/ought to proclaim the “truth” of God’s created design and by so doing people will come to receive it, believe it, and begin reflecting it in the world.
Contention: Perhaps. But an alternative biblical narrative may suggest the opposite, that people are already reflecting God’s truth in this world, and Christians are simply the ones to believe it, receive it, and then begin to re-reflect it in the world.
This is a complex argument to flesh out premised on a “proclamational” approach to evangelism, a paradox of merits and detriments. One cannot talk and listen at the same time, and it’s often hard to listen first when you have so much you want to say. Yet how does one communicate without positing something?
The biblical argument may rather support a theological argument that people are already reflecting God’s good and truthful design in this world. It may be that some Christians’ condemnation of other Christians’ faithful demonstration of the highest truths and values of Jesus in this world is more disheartening than the changing and developing culture around us.
6. Wilson states that this “brand” of Christianity is dying, and we are setting the knife, and letting people around us simply run into us.
Contention: Is the death of this “brand” of Christianity such a bad thing? Could it not be that this “brand” needs to die in order for a “new brand” to take its place?
Thousands of versions of Christianity have lived and died throughout our history. The staunchly exclusivistic fundamentalism that captivates a certain Christian contingent may actually be hindering the movement of God forward into these new eras and epochs. Does not the Spirit blow and no one knows from where it comes or where it goes? Perhaps we should be too wary of religious people who know too well.
7. Wilson states that the whole point of the Bible is “Kill the dragon. Get the girl.”
Contention: At first listen, this phrase is grating. Upon reflecting, I am warm to the sentiment.
When I first heard this, I was struck with the brash pithiness and the awkward comparison to a type of fairy tale myth Wilson makes with the Bible.
But upon thinking about it further, I think I like the phrase. Kill the dragon (e.g., “the snake/great beast”), and get the girl (i.e., “The Church” or the “Bride”). Perhaps it could be summed up as spurning evil for a covenant of love. Or, turning from the snake, to turn towards the bridegroom. Regardless, I think there is some great power here.
I would simply say that the audience for this kind of statement would not be Wilson’s audience in this lecture series. Perhaps a more evangelistic setting?
8. Wilson argues that the defense of marriage is a defense of the Gospel.
Contention: This may be theologically true according to this “brand” of Christianity, but it is evangelistically “bass ackwards.”
This is where most of the conversations stop before they even begin. Much of the line of argumentation Wilson presented is founded upon massive depths of theological conviction, including the core central message of the Gospel. Without that foundation, a defense of marriage simply doesn’t make sense and sounds like esoteric moralistic condemnation rather than “good news.” I would be curious how many in attendance walked away from Wilson’s lecture understanding or feeling at least a hyper simplified version of “The Gospel.”
There’s far too much to comment on through the Q&A. The tone and posture was primarily hostile, but that could simply have been because of the presentation as noted above. Each question of course involved a plethora of implications, ideas, assumptions, and perspectives of which thousands of pages has been written, so we should simply refer to those works, be it interpretations of Genesis, Leviticus, gendered theologies, etc.
The primary thread worth highlighting is two-fold. First, that the Q&A time highlighted more illustratively that Wilson presented a view of biblical sexuality. A view. There were plenty of Christians who were inquisitively hostile who clearly didn’t see things the way Wilson sees them. Second, given that Wilson presented a view, the debate is not (or should not) be between the views themselves per se. That devolves into a debate on what people believe, which is a conversation killer; “Well, I believe ‘x’.” “Well, okay then.” This debate ought to be more about hermeneutics and epistemology, which is admittedly far more difficult, and intellectually challenging, but nonetheless where the conversation needs to go if it is going to bear any fruit. Personally, it is disheartening to see presentations like this that do not recognize the necessity of engaging with both, diverse hermeneutics and diverse epistemologies.
The Opposing View
My critique above is distinct from others that I have read online and it is also worth engaging in the “conversation after the conversation.” So, for example, Denny Burk has written the following reflections. I will comment after each point.
1. The gay activists shouting for “tolerance” are the most shrill, intolerant personalities in the room. The irony seems to be completely lost on the protesters and naysayers who are quite disrespectful and cruel to Doug Wilson throughout his presentations. They demanded Wilson to give them logic and respect, but they gave him none in return.
Two things. First, I have perceived that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which the word “tolerance” is used, and to miss this colloquial diversity is to widen the gap of misunderstanding and strengthen the animosity. Burk’s comments above do exactly that. “Tolerance” in these kinds of debates seems to be used as a placeholder for what we may call “acceptance,” or perhaps even the word “welcome.” The reason why “acceptance” and “welcome” may be better words is because “tolerance” is not so much about ideological tolerance as it is about personal tolerance (i.e., personal “welcome/acceptance”). Burk references “logic” and “respect,” but what seems to be misunderstood is that Wilson’s presentation is essentially–ontologically and personally–illogical and disrespectful to those of diverse sexual identities. In other words, Wilson’s presentation is the first to be “intolerant,” (i.e. “non-welcoming,” and “non-accepting”). Listening to Christians miss this can be at times, intolerable.
2. Thanks be to God for Doug Wilson who rose to the task and answered their questions biblically and with good humor! He actually looks like he enjoys the sparring. That kind of winsomeness goes farther than winning every argument (though he also seems to win every argument too). Christians, take note. When reviled, do not revile in return (1 Pet. 2:23). Instead, bless those who curse you (Luke 6:28). Sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness (Prov. 16:21). A gentle answer turns away wrath, and the tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable (Prov. 15:1-2).
I’m not sure if Burk saw the same video I did. Wilson’s humor was deprecating and in poor taste, further alienating his audience from his credibility. Thusly, not winsome at all. Rather, quite repelling. And yes, that went farther than his arguments.
As if to further the disconnect, the biblical passages listed do not seem to be upheld in this conversation. Regarding 1 Peter, I would fully concede that Wilson’s tone and manner was not hostile (reviling). To that, credit. Regarding Luke 6, where was the blessing? Regarding Proverbs 16, if the speech was sweet, the audience certainly tasted bitterness. Regarding Proverbs, Wilson’s presentation was completely against helping to make knowledge acceptable. Wilson’s agenda was to make his position known.
3. Post-modern gobbledygook thinking is on massive display here. The students aren’t interested in attacking the reliability of the Bible on scientific or historical grounds. Traditional apologetics would have been useless here. Almost to a man, they were concerned with judging the morality of the Bible. They deconstructed the Bible and manipulated texts to their own ends but then also stood in judgment over the Bible where it didn’t fit their views. In everything, their intuitions and feelings about the nature of reality defined everything.
So, Burk’s comments here betray his own criticism. We could perhaps restate it, “[Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian] gobbledygook thinking is on massive display here. [These pastors and bloggers] aren’t interesting in attacking [sexual diversity issues] on scientific or historical grounds. [Thoughtful philosophical rationalism] would have been useless here. Almost to a man, they were concerned with judging the morality of [sexual diversity]. They deconstructed the Bible and manipulated texts to their own ends but then also stood in judgment over the Bible where it didn’t fit their views. In everything, their intuitions and feelings about the nature of reality defined everything.”
4. It is not difficult to see how the hostility on display in this video might be turned into open persecution of Christians. I do not mean to be an alarmist, but it is hard to ignore the level of vitriol that more and more seems to be directed toward Christians for their views on homosexuality. This encounter with Wilson is just a single instance of a disdain that is becoming more widespread in the culture. What will be the public implications of that disdain in the next 10, 20, or even 30 years? It seems to me that the vitriol on display in this video is on its way to becoming the majority view. For Christians, this is not likely to get any easier for us going forward.
First, Burk is alarmist and should recognize the power of his limbic system here, that fear is having an affect on his rationale. Second, what is really meant by persecution? Yazidis are being beaten, tortured, raped, exiled, bought and sold for organs simply because they are Christians. It is important to note that non-Christians were not the only opponents of Wilson. There were several Christians who were also opening ideologically hostile to Wilson. Third, perhaps the hostility is warranted. Listen to the stories of hurt, pain, and even death, as a result of teachings, and wider cultural pressures against sexual minorities. Fourth, this encounter with Wilson is not “a single instance of a disdain that is becoming more widespread in the culture.” This encounter with Wilson is a single instance of the suffering and persecution that has been experienced by sexual minorities as a result of Christian teaching for many years. Last, this vitriol will not become the majority view. Vitriol only exists because of the issues of tolerance (referenced above). Christian views are shifting rapidly. “Welcome” and “acceptance,” will become the majority view, and this will be the Christian view.
5. The Lord’s arm is not too short to save (Is. 59:1). Our culture’s spiritual decline is not inevitable. Who knows what God might do if we bear witness faithfully to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Let’s do that, and pray for God to have mercy on us and our neighbors.
To this, I say, “Amen.” What would happen to Wilson’s arguments, and other Evangelical Christians if we bore “faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ?” We will continue to pray to that end.
Critics of this post will note that I have not been affirming of Wilson, which will have betrayed my own views. While I have attempted to offer a “critique” rather than a “counter-argument,” I also offer the following in deference:
1. Wilson should be commended for putting his views on display, for having thoughtfully and critically crafted his reasons, logic, and arguments. I do believe he represented the Evangelical Christian view accurately, though nuances would be debated between various factions of Evangelicalism.
2. Wilson is to be commended for enduring a quite hostile audience, though I’m sure he was prepared and knowledgeable as to what kind of environment he was entering. Regardless, the flurry of aggravation was palpable, difficult for anyone to endure.
3. Wilson did receive and respond to every question and availed himself to the majority of inquiries. He exemplified charity, a virtue that is to be commended.
Presentations like this do not happen in a vacuum. Blogs, posts and “conversations after conversations” are not isolated germinations. And so, we would do well to “seek first to understand.” To ask more questions. To reach further behind and through the “stuff” we see and encounter, to get to the “thing behind the thing,” and connect as best as we can to the soul of humanity, not just the surface.
What was the fruit? Is it appropriate to judge the presentation by its results? Hard to do when there is so much animosity. Convictions run deep. By what standard should we evaluate? By conversions? By changes of mind? Or, by how much understanding and empathy was elevated in the conversation? By either accounts, I do not suggest Wilson fared very well. Most of what can be evaluated is that this presentation only furthered the divide, deepening, strengthening, and confirming that which we have already held dear.
Oh that we would first “hear,” (שמע). That we would be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” And that we would be patient and kind. That we would not boast and not be proud. That we would not dishonor others or be self-seeking or be easily angered. That we would dismiss all record of wrongs. That we would rejoice with the truth, the whole truth. And that we would protect, trust, hope, and persevere.
Oh that love would never fail.