“Romans 1:26-27, ‘Nature,’ and the Blindfolded Students of the Elephant” by James Brownson

James V. Brownson is James I. and Jean Cook Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan, and author of the new book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships.

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Blind men and elephant2
By Illustrator unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
You all know the story of the blind men and the elephant. One thinks it’s a tree; another a snake. It all depends on what part of the elephant they are touching.

One of the things I try to argue in my book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, is that something like this happens in a lot of the discussion about “nature” and same-sex intimate relationships as depicted in Romans 1:26-27. One of the things Paul says about these relationships is that they are “contrary to” or “outside of” nature. But different people have very different ways to interpret what Paul means by “nature.”

On the more progressive side of the broader debate over the interpretation of Romans 1, we see a couple of different perspectives. For some, Paul is speaking here about heterosexual men who act against their “natural” heterosexual orientation by engaging in sex with other men. By this view, Paul says nothing about gay men who are acting in accordance with what is “natural” for them in terms of sexual orientation. Others on this side of the larger debate focus not so much on “nature” as one’s individual disposition, and more on “nature” as social consensus, or “what everybody knows.” Often, these folks cite texts like 1 Cor 11:14, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him?” In this view, “nature” refers to little more than commonly-held social assumptions, which can change dramatically in different times and cultures.

Those on the more conservative side of the broader debate strongly disagree with both of these readings. They insist that what Paul means by “nature” in this text is all about human anatomy — the “fittedness” of male and female sex organs. By this argument, “nature” has nothing to do with one’s individual “orientation,” or even social consensus. Instead, it has everything to do with the way that human bodies are designed. Same-sex intimate relationships are wrong, by this view, because they involve a misplacement of body parts.

Bible, Gender, Sexuality
Bible, Gender, Sexuality

In Bible, Gender, Sexuality, I explore all these arguments. I’m not convinced that “nature” in the ancient world refers primarily to the shape of body parts, though I think the ancient view of nature included an awareness of the link between sex and procreation. But at a deeper level, I also argue that for the ancients, “nature” was an all-encompassing vision, including individual disposition and social consensus, as well as the physical and biological world. The various dimensions emphasized by different sides of the contemporary debate were all part of the ancient discussion. All the blindfolded folks are holding on to part of the elephant. But what the ancients were looking for at the deepest level, when they spoke of “nature,” was a convergence of individual disposition, social consensus, and the biological world. They wanted to take off the blindfold, to see the whole, and to determine how it all fit together.

What might it mean to embrace such an integrative vision today, when we have a different social consensus, and when many people are recognizing that one’s individual sexual orientation, regardless of its origin, is often deeply persistent and resistant to change? Human biology hasn’t changed, but many other aspects of the ancient vision for “nature” have changed in the modern world. Pursuing an integrated and converging vision for “nature” will be considerably more complicated in our contemporary context. Where should we put the emphasis today, and how do we integrate these various dimensions of what is “natural” or “contrary to nature?” One my book’s aims is to explore the various aspects of that more complicated vision.

Click to order James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships.