John Boswell on Christianity and Same Sex Relations in History
Below is a link to one of the only live lectures of which I am aware of the late Yale historian John Boswell.
Before his life was cut short tragically from AIDS, Boswell made a huge mark by attempting to revise the scholarly record on the history of Christianity and same sex relations. His thesis was that the Bible is compatible with a pro-homosexual narrative – indeed, that it describes homosexual marriages in a positive light, and that anti-homosexual notions and practices were not adopted into Christendom until the 13th Century.
For those wishing for happy endings, his thesis is probably too good to be true. It was subject to much praise and criticism. As I read the books of the biblical canon, I see a lot of complex, diverse, mysterious, and often hard to understand passages. I do see a small handful of proof quotes which speak against homosexual practice, but I don’t see any texts which seem to speak positively on homosexual sex.
In my opinion if we are looking for unequivocal affirmation of sex in the biblical canon, it will be procreative, marital man-woman sex. The canon itself neither forbids nor condones contraception; Roman Catholicism bases its condemnation of contraception primarily on its understanding of the natural law. I also don’t see any clear condemnation of polygamy, while I do see the holding up of many biblical characters who lead polygamous lifestyles.
I don’t think these observations mean Boswell’s thesis is bogus. As noted above, the Bible is a thick and complicated book, the understanding of which is highly contested. Arguably, the Bible contradicts itself many times over – at least until some more or less sophisticated hermeneutic arises to smooth out the contradictions.
When speaking of, for instance, the relationship between David and Jonathan, The Book of Samuel describes the two men as having their “souls knit.” The anti-gay theologians’ response is that such a statement refers to friendship. I seem to remember one anti-gay theologian as noting they were “just friends.” I don’t know if he worded it that way. But you know what I mean. It begs the question as to what friendship means.
The Roman Catholic Church – in describing the propriety of sexual relations, based on the Bible, natural law and church tradition – requires that a relationship must be both, 1) “unitive,” and, 2) “procreative,” in a man-woman marriage.
Same sex couples cannot, currently at least, procreate. But the kind of relationship which those who get married claim to have, and which drives the desire to formally pair-bond, is that very same unitive element. Is the unitive element of a husband and wife marriage, stripped of its procreative nature, “just friendship”? Or is it something more? Or does it perhaps like the term “love” have different kinds of meanings that can’t be captured in one word?
Indeed, it’s debatable what the use of Aristophanes’ metaphor in Plato’s Symposium describing eros, which posits same sex eros as on par with that of the opposite sex, is meant to convey regarding the propriety of homosexual acts. If we don’t remember, the story told in the beginning human beings were big and round and had two sets of opposite sex genitals. But some of these creatures had two sets of same sex genitals. Zeus split them in two, so humans would be forever longing for their “other” half, their soul mate as it were.
This seems to suggest that there is a constitutive “orientation” to same sex eros and that such eros is equal to opposite sex eros. (Indeed the original writings intimate that same sex eros was superior to opposite sex eros.)
So take Abraham Lincoln. I don’t see any evidence that he had sexual relations with Joshua Speed. However, I don’t think I would describe his relationship as “just friendship.” Rather, he felt as though Speed were his soulmate. Among other things, he slept in the same bed with Speed. The response is that, back then when society was poorer, the shortage of beds demanded such convention. But Speed and Lincoln slept in the same bed in the White House, where there was no such shortage. Perhaps when there was no longer a necessity, the convention persisted simply because it was a convention.
I don’t know. I do doubt, though, that saying Joshua Speed was “just” Lincoln’s “friend” fully captures the dynamic of their relationship.