Science matters when Christians discuss sexuality
Some church leaders ignore personal experience and scientific evidence when discussing sexuality, unless these fit in with their existing ideas. They may think this shows their faithfulness to the Bible and so to God. But they are wrong.
Suppose a devoutly Christian mother claimed to love her child deeply, yet often fed him bread though he had a wheat allergy, so that he repeatedly got ill. When doctors urged her to stop, she mentioned that she was responding to the many positive biblical references to bread, including what Jesus told his followers at the last supper (1 Corinthians 11.23-25).
Imagine that she also explained that she was acting on the advice of her pastor, who had introduced her to a doctor who claimed that the medical establishment had got it wrong and encouraged her to keep giving her child bread. Besides, she said, bread was generally good for people when part of a balanced diet, so she would persist and keep praying for her child’s recovery.
Even if she sincerely felt love for her child, she would be acting in an unloving way. As numerous Bible passages indicate, love should involve more than emotions or even positive intentions but rather actions that benefit others. For individuals and societies, it will occasionally become apparent that an approach which previously seemed beneficial does more harm than good, which should lead to change.
Being wholly objective is difficult, if not impossible, even for trained scientists, which is why careful examination through peer review and discussion among scholars in particular fields is so important. The Bible and church tradition can be helpful in encouraging searching questions, for instance about how measures that supposedly benefit ‘society’ affect the poorest and most vulnerable.
Nevertheless, the findings of such disciplines as biology, psychology and social sciences can help Christians to better understand the universe which God has given us, so that ethical choices can be informed by deeper knowledge. This is in keeping with the wisdom tradition which runs through the Bible.
For instance king Solomon is said to have been famed throughout the ancient world for his knowledge and understanding (1 Kings 4.29-34). Jesus criticises those whose minds are closed against him, in contrast to the queen of the South who “came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon” (Luke 11.29-32).
In Christian tradition, wisdom and truth-seeking are often associated with the Holy Spirit. Ignoring evidence which does not fit one’s pre-existing views of what Scripture teaches is a bad approach to Christian ethics.
Today it is not usually necessary to travel across the globe to access the fruits of others’ research, though international conferences are still valuable in allowing specialists to examine one another’s findings in detail and check whether flaws can be found, as well as encouraging further work in particular fields. Yet scientific literacy is variable even among people who are generally well-educated, and churches which supposedly recognise the value of science may not always make good use of it.
For instance, one of the weakest aspects of a Church of England report in 2013 by a House of Bishops working group on human sexuality (the Pilling Report) was its approach to science. Another report published earlier that year, Men and women in marriage, was weaker still in that regard. Ekklesia research papers on these documents highlight some of the evidence which was missed or misinterpreted.
Recognising that one may have got things wrong and re-examining the effects of one’s actions can be difficult, for churches as well as parents. However love requires a willingness to be truly attentive to the feelings and experiences of the beloved, using the intellectual capabilities which God has bestowed on humankind.
The Bible and tradition, properly approached, lead to greater openness to truth, including readiness to learn from science.
* Edging towards accepting diversity: the Pilling Report on sexuality is on http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/pilling.
* Family as common wealth: a response to 'Men and women in marriage' is on http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19730.
© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.
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