Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hauerwas on the Implications of Friendship With Gays

For a young Hauerwas, 'Do you believe in the virgin birth?' was the question that people asked to find out if you're really a Christian. Today that question concerns one's position on homosexuality. Hauerwas is troubled by the function of such questions and the subsequent work that the answers do. Hence he has been reluctant to come out with a straight answer.

He experiments with such an answer by beginning with, in a very unHauerwasian move, experience. Hauerwas is distrustful of appeals to experience when it comes to theology, saying that growing up Methodist meant he had enough "experience" by the age of 12 to last him a life time. Nevertheless, he begins to discuss homosexuality by citing the "fact" that he has experienced virtuous friendship with homosexual Christians. Gays are in the church, says Hauerwas, and they are in the church in such a way that the church would be less than it is without them.

Friendship, for Hauerwas, is more than a mere experience, however, but an "epistemological necessity", with friendship being the only context in which activities of virtue and vice can be named. Friendship, to be friendship, must be characterised by virtue, so that it becomes impossible to be friends with gay people while at the same time thinking of them as immoral. In Hauerwas's words, "if 'being gay' names an immoral practice, then surely being a friend of gay people would not be a wise policy for those who would be moral."

And yet, as Hauerwas said earlier, Christian friendship with gay people is a reality. To try to explain this by divorcing homosexuality from virtue is, for Hauerwas, to introduce the destructive notion of a distinction between private and public, between, in this case, being virtuous and being gay. At the same time, we must not make sex more determinant than it needs to be. "Gay people, like the rest of us, have more important things to do than to be gay."

Hauerwas's argument hangs on his robust description of friendship, but I question that description. Jesus's friendships were not characterised by mutual virtue. The disciples whom he called friends would abandon him. He was known as the friend of sinners. Immorality, therefore, was not a stumbling block to his friendships. "But that was Jesus" is not a counter-argument that would carry much weight for Hauerwas. Hauerwas's logic, then, though not necessarily his conclusion, appears flawed.

He is convincing in other ways, though. For Hauerwas, there is nothing virtuous about a man having sex with a woman, nor is there anything vicious about a man having sex with a man. What matters is faithfulness, or the absence of promiscuity and adultery. Virtue is not known by whether one has "straight sex" or "gay sex", but by fidelity and doing good for the community. This reasoning stems from Hauerwas's mistrust of the word "inherently". Put more theologically, however, it may be seen to stem from Hauerwas's mistrust of  "natural law".

Hauerwas's mistrust can be justified. Consider the act of peeing. It is a bodily act, something natural to us as humans. Is it a virtue to pee? Is it a vice? That urine comes out of a male penis is a fact, but we cannot construct an ethic out of this abstract fact. In this sense, peeing is ammoral. What about a boy who learns to urinate in a toilet, however? Or what about the man who decides to pee on his neighbours car? The natural act of peeing is transformed into a virtue or vice by human practices and intentions. When you get up to go to the bathroom instead of pooing in the library or at your work station, then, you are being virtuous. When you don't...well, let's not go there.

In short, it is the context that gives sex its moral quality. For Hauerwas, if that context is a virtuous relationship between two women, then Christianity will have to allow exceptions to its rule.


  1. It's funny. I agree with Hauerwas where you disagree with him while I disagree with him where you find agreement.

    My agreement first:
    So, while you are exactly right that the disciples Jesus called friends abandoned him, I think you might be mistaken when you declare that "Jesus's friendships were not characterised by mutual virtue."

    Jesus doesn't seem to look at Peter and see the man called Simon. He also doesn't seem to see the Peter who abandoned him. Instead he seems to see the Peter that will stand before him when Jesus is finished making him new. That Peter will be virtuous. That journey is salvation. The future verdict on Peter is rendered in advance in the past because Peter *IS* the friend of Jesus.

    My disagreement:
    As well as virtuous sex being dependent on context, faithfulness is contextual too. And as inconvenient as it is in our culture, Jesus defined that faithfulness very explicitly in his engagements with the Pharisees and it is in terms of man and woman. We might speculate that there is something about the mutuality of gender that makes the communion of man and woman such a fertile symbol of faithfulness but I am yet to be convinced that it isn't essentially important. So to your example of peeing: while amusing, I don't think it holds as an analogy because peeing is a singular act. Sex is communal.

  2. You make sense.

    Your take on virtue is like a rephrasing of the doctrine of justification: virtuous now in light of the virtue to come. Your emphasis on the communality of sex probably comes into play here also, because the virtue of Christ cannot be divorced from the virtue of the community which is his body, and vice versa.

    There is another aspect which I didn't mention, which is friendship with those outside of the church. Does Hauerwas find the concept of a virtuous Buddhist or a virtuous atheist intelligible? Or is the refusal to worship the God revealed in Christ an immoral act that renders inter-faith friendship impossible?

    To salvage my analogy I could mention at this point about how women love to go to the bathroom together...! But you're right. Sex, unlike peeing, is communal, and difference between male and female makes a difference. The French Rabbi that you linked to a while back did a good job of explaining the difference that makes.

  3. Where does Hauerwas say this stuff?