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Nicholas Kristof, Theological Man of Absurdity

The original title of this post was going to be "For All The Wisdom You'll Get, You're Better Off Listening to Flatulent Hamsters than Nicholas Kristof." Then I realized that I really didn't want Google traffic from those looking for hamster porn.

Nonetheless, it's difficult to express in mere words the level of disdain I have for Mr. Kristof's latest river of drivel in New York's most pitiful newspaper, entitled "God and Sex. A lot of ink has been spilled on this topic already, but Kristof adds nothing.

Let's set the corpus of his piece out on the dissection table and see why it's a dry husk of an argument. He starts out:

So when God made homosexuals who fall deeply, achingly in love with each other, did he goof?

Now, this is actually an interesting question, if stunning in its unoriginality. If you broaden it slightly outside the homosexual realm, you have merely the problem of evil and the existence of sin: how could an infallible god create creatures with the capacity to break his own commandments? Why would he do so, and why would he allow such evil people to exist?

That's not to say that homosexuals are evil. It's just that if you think you've found a way around the larger problem--and many have tried--then the question posed by Kristof is no trouble at all. And if you admit the existence of the possibility of sin, then Kristof's question just becomes a more trivial instance of the greater issue.

Of course, it's still an interesting question, but Kristof doesn't mean to invoke the problem of evil, theodicy, or anything of the sort. He means to make a rhetorical point which is amusing to the simple-minded, but just goes to show he doesn't understand what he's critiquing. We can see this in his next paragraph:

That seems implicit in the measures opposing gay marriage on the ballots of 11 states.

No, that would be implicit only if you judged them on perfectly secular assumptions. Anyone with even self-taught theological background would see the above and realize that no such statement is implicit, so long as one buys the existence of sin. You might as well say, "Did God err when he created individuals who have so much avarice that laws must be passed to keep them from stealing?"

So why is he speaking such obviously trite poppycock? Because he's got a whole column to fill until he gets to what is finally his real point, as we shall see. And that point, once you strip the puffery off of it, is hardly worth the ink.

I'll skip over the next few paragraphs of Kristof banality: conservatives shouldn't assume God is always on their side (they don't), liberals shouldn't abandon the theological field (they don't either, unless one has been ignoring the debate). But let's look at how he treats theological subjects when he gets to them, starting with the tale of the ill-fated Sodomites:

It's true that the story of Sodom is treated by both modern scholars and by ancient Ezekiel as about hospitality, rather than homosexuality. In Sodom, Lot puts up two male strangers for the night. When a lustful mob demands they be handed over, Lot offers his two virgin daughters instead. After some further unpleasantness, God destroys Sodom. As Mark Jordan notes in "The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology," it was only in the 11th century that theologians began to condemn homosexuality as sodomy.

As summaries go, I could do similar to Jane Eyre by stating that, "After an unhappy childhood, Jane meets a fellow called Rochester. After some further unpleasantness, she marries him." It's true, but anyone looking for the point of the book will miss it. (If you'd like an interesting take on the story, in more detail, I'd recommend The Harlot on the Side of the Road, by Jonathan Kirsch. Entertaining, sensible, and not that far from Kristof's position.)

What follows is the typical pablum you'd expect from Kristof, disguising itself as textual exigesis. Leviticus condemns wearing a polyester and cotton shirt. (I always thought the prohibition was between "linen and woolen," but maybe Kristof gets his clothing from polyester sheep.) Jesus praised eunuchs. The prohibition against homosexuality in the Bible comes from Paul, not Jesus.

Never is there an understanding of why some of the prohibitions of Leviticus stand in Christianity, and why others have fallen by the wayside. Indeed, if one were to follow a Kristoffian theology, the understanding of Judaism could never have advanced through commentary, which I suspect would come as a shock to less orthodox, not to say Reform, Jews. (Incidentally, why does Kristof never ask about Jewish or Muslim opposition to homosexuality?) Nor do we get any understanding of how, if the prohibitions against homosexuality are so textually flimsy that even a New York Times columnist can debunk them, they ever evolved in the first place. Kristof, to his credit, admits several times that the bulk of theological debate is generally against him, but then trivializes any of his opponent's very real arguments.

This is a shame, because some of the scholars he mentions--at least from my reading--seem very level-headed. Certainly Brooten's work on female homosexuality seems both lively and intriguing, and a fair measure of reasonable counterargument. It's a pity Kristof couldn't have confined himself to a book review.

Of course, Kristof isn't really interested in whether Christians should understand homosexuality to be a sin. He's mocking religious understanding, clear from his opening line, before getting to his real point:

In any case, do we really want to make Paul our lawgiver? Will we enforce Paul's instruction that women veil themselves and keep their hair long? (Note to President Bush: If you want to obey Paul, why don't you start by veiling Laura and keeping her hair long, and only then move on to barring gay marriages.)

Yes, you see, he's arguing for an iron wall between Church and State. Again, not a particularly novel argument, and certainly not enough to fill a column if he didn't have some vapid bile to spew with it. But even here he misses the point.

The debate on homosexual marriage does involve who we wish to be our lawgivers. But no one, not even the most fervid evangelical Christian, is supposing that this lawgiver should be Paul. (For one thing, he's dead. Come to think of it, he's a foreigner to boot.) Rather, the debate on state FMAs reflects a choice between our lawgivers being state legislatures--or even more, given these referenda, the people--or robed wise (wo)men on state supreme courts. After all, the only state in the nation to announce gay marriage did not do so through the polls, but through the pulpit of its courts.

In other words, even if the various FMAs up for voting this year are attempts to "make Paul our lawgiver," then his question answers itself: if we do vote them into law, then yes, we do want Paul to be our lawgiver. (This is ridiculous: a Muslim voting for an FMA would be doing no such thing, nor would someone like me who would vote in an amendment as a reproach for assertive judges. But if we grant Kristof his conceit, he seems to be answering his own question.)

It's almost embarassing to continue a catalogue of Kristof's ignorance, but how can I help it? He leaves the best ammunition against him to last:

So if we're going to cherry-pick biblical phrases and ignore the central message of love, then perhaps we should just ban marriage altogether?

Of course, no serious Biblical scholarship on either side of the divide is performed by "cherry-pick[ing]" phrases from holy books. Just as in constitutional law commentators make arguments from policy, legislative history, or statutory construction (and vary in the weight given to each), so Biblical scholarship involves similar tradeoffs. Kristof has spent his time building up, then burning down, a straw man.

There are some very fine arguments for why homosexuality should not be considered a Christian sin. Last year, the Columbia Chaplain sponsored quite a fine meeting where such topics were explored, and even Kristof points to some works that are raising interesting questions in this area. It would behoove those who wish to criticize Christianity to read them and learn the subject, and certainly to do more than read op-eds this pathetic.


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I'm not a huge fan of Kristof, but I still think you're making a classic atheist's mistake when you suggest that the argument explaining avarice in God's creation goes to explain homosexual love. You see, avarice is what you would call a grotesque invention of humanity after the fall. Before the fall, there was no avarice. God does not suffer from it, nor do the angels. It's a fundamental perversion of what human nature was created to be, an expression of its disorder. Love, on the other hand, is inherent in the nature of God himself. Love, for the good, for our fellow-being, for God, is how we become Christlike, drawing near to God. It is love that is the basis of the great sacrifice that redeemed humankind. Love is the expression of the divine within us, our link to the divine order. So, truly, the only way the standard explanation for avarice (God allows humans to follow their sinful natures as the expression of their free will) can be extended to cover homosexual love is if you believe that it doesn't qualify as *love* at all. Love, in mainstream Christian theology, is not a sin; it is in some ways the antithesis of sin, that which sets us free from it. If you believe that same-sex love can be love at all, then it makes little sense to say that God condemns it as he does avarice. They're simply not of the same type of action. Therefore, one can accept standard reasoning about avarice and anger and hate and still find it irrational to argue that God would arrange that the most Christlike and sanctified aspect of our nature could be directed at the wrong object. You can't truly love, in the strict theological sense, sin or evil or death. Perhaps you're ready to accept the position that homosexual love doesn't count as love in that sense, but you have to recognize that it's a little further advanced than the analysis that covers other human impulses which don't enjoy love's special status.
Sarah, This is a very good point, and a subtle difference between my argument above and what Kristof might have made as a good argument. Nonetheless, Kristof doesn't make that argument. After all--as you point out--the issue then is not "did God goof," but "is homosexual [erotic] love the same as the love sanctified by marriage?" This would go into a debate as to which of the differing conceptions of love necessarily need marriage for sanctification, which do not, etc. However, it's not Kristof's argument: he's certainly not interested.

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