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The Roots of Intolerance

Tuesday, December 24, 2019 - 09:00

In this section of Boswell's study of shifting attitudes toward (male) homosexuality under Christianity, he explores the question of "why should sexual behavior come in for judgment at all?" as well as the specific trains of thought that were used to support condemnation of homosexuality specifically. He points out that it wasn't a foregone conclusion that Christianity would take this path, and that some of the background set-up for the rise of intolerance was demographic and political rather than philosophical. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Prejudice and persecution are still being used as political tools to justify state (or majority) authority over people's personal lives. When you examine the long history of the rhetoric of sexual intolerance, it becomes clear that the largest scriptural bludgeons that have been used over the ages were brought into the debate after the fact. The story of Sodom was not--when you trace its uses--always and specifically about variant sexuality. Nor did the passages in Leviticus hold any special and universal scope over people's everyday actions until cherry-picked for the purpose. Boswell betrays one of his weaknesses in the work he puts into arguing the theological non-validity of anti-gay arguments. As has also been pointed out with regard to Brooten's work on female same-sex relations in the same timeframe, there is a desperate air of begging to be welcomed into the fold. Of thinking that if you only pointed out the logical errors of the last two millennia, then the institution of Christianity would suddenly cave and say, "Oh dear, you're absolutely right! We should never have persecuted you! How can we make things right?" One can either be a historian or one can be a theologian, but it is awkward to try to be both at the same time.

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Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-06711-4

Part II The Christian Tradition

Part II The Christian Tradition

Chapter 4: The Scriptures

There were massive changes to attitudes to same-sex relations that can be attributed to Christian influence on Eureopean culture, but that influence was complex and derived from several separate factors including scripture, social dynamics, and theology.

There is an extensive discussion of the background of the Biblical story of Sodom and how it was developed and elaborated in Christian interpretation. There is also an extended discussion of the original context of references to same-sex relations in Leviticus. Boswell argues that neither of these texts were in a position to shape early Christian thought, whatever influence they may have had later.

He picks apart the several texts associated with St. Paul that are considered to be anti-gay. There is a long discussion of the concept of “against nature.”

Chapter 5: Christians and Social Change

The Roman Empire underwent a crisis of change involving cultural shifts with demographic changes, including a shift from urban to rural background of the political elite. Personal behavior came to be seen as a matter of state interest and same-sex relations came in increasingly for control and prohibition.

Another thread of change was the rise of ascetic philosophy which focused on acts done for pleasure rather than productive purpose.

During this era, “acceptable” same-sex love tended to be expressed in terms of religious bonding rather than eros.

Chapter 6: Theological Traditions

Though early Christian ascetics were a minority, their philosophy provided justification for anti-homosexual attitudes based on four principles: animal behavior (associating specific animals with anal/oral sex and thus concluding that this behavior is “bestial”); unsavory associations (e.g., with child molestation and paganism); being “against nature” (derived from Platonic and Aristotelian concepts of “essential natures”); and gender expectations (which appears to apply specifically to male pairings, as it is concerned with the receptive partner being feminized). But the ascetics also had a general hostility to eroticism in general and only considered it justified by procreation.

Boswell asserts that the falsity of many of these theological grounds (e.g., that the animal behavior models were based on myth rather than biology) make the anti-gay conclusions theologically invalid.