Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting on moral objectivity. I’ve gotten some pushback from a few people that I have great admiration for, which has inspired me to re-examine my own convictions. Before I go any further, I’m going to show my cards.
First and foremost, I am a moral realist. I believe that an objective moral order exists independently of human reason. This objective moral order is the natural order of the universe, which has been created by God. Our human capacity to reason – which is itself a gift from God – enables us to reflect on what it means to be human, what it means to live in relationship with other human beings and earthcreatures, and how we ought to live out those relationships in a responsible manner.
Sure, human reason can be erroneous. It can also quickly turn into a hegemonic power discourse. We need not look too far back in history to know the truth of this tragedy. Think women. Think persons of color. Think Jews. And the list goes on and on and on. We should rightfully be suspicious of any claims that objectively discriminate against a certain group of people, because all humans are first and foremost humans, together. Women. Persons of color. Jews. All created in God’s image and likeness. All persons with inherent dignity. This is an objective moral truth.
People have rights, actions do not. Actions are not people. Actions do, however, have an impact on the character formation of their actors. If a person develops the habit of lying – then their propensity to lie, which is a bad character trait, will have an adverse effect on their overall moral character. So, actions must undergo a careful and thorough scrutiny. That said, we must be weary of talk about moral perversity. Think queer people. Our LGBTIQA sisters and brothers have been the victims of heteronormativity, a particularly insidious hegemonic power discourse. Which is why consulting human experience, especially the experience of those on the margins of both church and society, is of the utmost importance in ethics and matters of social justice.
So, how is experience not relative? Experience can, in fact, illuminate universal truths. If you do not eat, you will die. The loss of a loved one is saddening. I’ll never forget the experience of watching those children march out of Sandy Hook Elementary School in a single-file line. This searing image angered many of us at the injustice of gun violence. Shooting and killing children is wrong. This is an objective moral truth.
The world in which we live is broken, namely because of human sinfulness and our freedom to do wrong and to orient ourselves to badness. James Keenan defines sin as “the failure to bother to love.” Genocide. Torture. Starvation. Mountaintop removal. Rape. Economic exploitation. These are all the consequences of human sin, of failing to love. An objective moral order exists to show us that – no matter the specific, particular, cultural context – the aforementioned actions are wrong and worthy of unequivocal condemnation. Because all humans are first and foremost human, together — and together, we are called to love.
We are greater than our particular cultural context or situation. Our call to care for each other and our planet is universal and binding. This is not just true for me, it’s true for all of us.
For several decades, sexual ethics has been the subject of critical scrutiny and careful revision within the academy, seminary, pulpit, pew, and bedroom. And for a very good reason. With the rise of women’s liberation and the slow, but steady momentum gained by the bold and brave activists of the queer community, people are beginning to see with greater clarity that women and queer folk alike are human beings created with the fundamental human right to realize full flourishing in both the public and private spheres. Insofar as humans are wired to be sexual beings, the erotic dimension of our lives is but one means to realize the end of full flourishing. While moral norms within sexual practices such as mutuality, fidelity, love, and justice remain rightfully at the forefront of talk about sexual ethics, the equation for what an “ideal” sexual relationship looks like is rapidly changing.
Listening is the first requirement of doing the work of justice. Emerging insights about sexuality and gender, in light of human experience, are situated at the heart of the renewal of sexual ethics. Right reason, formed within the life of a community, informs us that not every sexual union can be biologically procreative. Tragically, this ideal is not even possible for some committed heterosexual couples whose efforts to conceive a child are stymied by infertility. But do we have the audacity to say that their union, their love for each other, is unfruitful? Mutuality, fidelity, love, and justice, among others, are universalizable moral norms within sex. This is confirmed by human experience. The norm of procreation is not. Full stop. This, too, is confirmed by human experience.
With the goal of procreation no longer hailed as the ultimate moral norm of sexual union, but as one of several fruitful goods that could result from sex, the door is opened to empower those sexual minorities on the margins to lay claim to their humanity as they have been created. Our queer sisters and brothers, by their very lives, by their sometimes welcomed and oftentimes unwanted and awkward presence in church, and by their celebrated public display at annual pride parades, take their place in the everyday, ordinariness of lived existence. Queer people are never going to go away. We might as well get used to them.
This is the new normal. It’s not the type that is depicted on the television sitcom. It’s certainly not a queer community whose public face is oftentimes white and male. And, believe it or not, it’s more basic than marriage equality. The new normal is a global phenomenon. It’s the basic, human right for all people everywhere to be treated as a human being, to be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness. The new normal isn’t about toleration, but about appreciation. The new normal isn’t about fear, it’s about love.
But you cannot have the new normal without a global reform of sexual ethics. If the sexual practices of queer people remain cast as “other” or “perverse,” then the hate crimes, suicides, criminalization, bullying, violence, and outright murder of our queer sisters and brothers will continue worldwide. Sexual ethics is, in fact, tied up with the commitment to a global project of social healing.
Ethics is the theory of discerning the good and living in right relation. It’s about the proper ordering of relationships, of living and loving for justice and for the common good. Sexuality is perhaps the most intimate way one can relate to another human being. And humans are, at their very core, social beings. This sacred dimension of the human person ought not be repressed or oppressed. To deny others access to their full flourishing, to a relationship of intimate union, is to deny their very humanity. Furthermore, to ignore human experience is antithetical to the doing of ethics. Experience is the touchstone of knowledge; experience is the place of divine revelation.
Noteworthy figures like Margaret Farley, Shawn Copeland, Lisa Sowle Cahill, Aana Marie Vigen, Carter Heyward, Robert Cummings Neville, Patrick S. Cheng, and Marvin Ellison, to name but a few of the people who have a stake in this project and who have influenced my own studies and writings on ethics, take their place within the tradition alongside a great line of prophets who continue to call our global church to greater unity. We must follow in their footsteps to enact a vision of love and justice that can create the context for the emergence of God’s great kin-dom. On earth as it is in heaven.
This meditation appeared on The Huffington Post on 18 February 2013.