by Robert Baldwin
from Signs of the Times No. 66 - Jul 2017
In February 2017, the Synod of the Church of England voted not to ‘take note’ of a Bishops’ report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships.
The Archbishops’ response was to seek ‘a radical new Christian inclusion… (which) must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual’.
I was struck by the last phrase. What is a proper 21st century understanding ‘of being human and of being sexual’? Can science help? Here are some reflections.
From science, we learn that earthly life depends on:
a particular planetary rotational axis and tilt
a tidal moon
a healthy distance from the sun’s nuclear furnace
a magnetic core
lots of water
movement of tectonic plates
These are chance events. Evolution by natural selection is a seemingly blind, non-directed process aimed at equipping the organism to survive to reproduce. It is under-pinned by common ancestry and DNA. Competition and cooperation are its leitmotifs (try living without your gut bacteria and you will succumb to invading pathogens). Far from blemishes in creation, ‘mistakes’ or worse, the fault of sinful humans, cancer and degenerative disease are the cost of being made the way we are. Genetic twin studies have nudged the nature/nurture pendulum more in the direction of nature, a significant change from the 1960s and 70s (Mukherjee, 2016). Genes influence (but do not cause) temperament, impulsivity, anxiety, religiosity and sexual orientation.
In a review, Myers (2014) writes
‘For the church, the take-home message is that sexual orientation is a natural predisposition... sexual orientation is an enduring predisposition’ (author’s italics).
Sexual identity is indubitably genetic: the SRY gene on the Y chromosome is like a switch - on and you will develop male genitalia; otherwise you are anatomically female. A mutated SRY gene results in an individual who is chromosomally male (XY) but anatomically female. Gender involves the psychological, social and cultural roles adopted by an individual and gender identity the individual’s own sense of who they are. Genes may still be involved in these two aspects of sexuality but not in a deterministic manner. For example, a biological male may have a brain with a genetically reduced sensitivity to masculinisation, creating gender dysphoria. Many human traits (phenotypes) are on a continuum because of genetic variation, which after all is the point of evolution. Why should sexuality be any different? This is not in opposition to social constructivist views of gender roles but complementary to it. The idea that God has ordained immutable roles for us is hard to square with science.
Some Christians do not accept this account, or only parts of it, because it privileges chance over divine control. Proposals to address this such as ‘homo divinus’ or Godly influence of the genetic code are not within the scope of science, yet evolution by natural selection has resulted in the phenomenal diversity of the biosphere, prompting theologians to propose that it is God’s tool for ensuring the richness of life (‘theistic evolution’): God ‘makes things that make themselves’. On this account, being human is to be rough-hewn by nature, not specially created nor originally perfected. We are as wonderful and glorious as any other living being but not more wonderful or better. No human variations, including sexual ones, are better than others.
This could be deism but for one crucial factor, the human brain, with its evolved characteristics and its underpinning of consciousness. Some of these characteristics arguably equip us to be God-prone, with a need for love and equipped for empathy and morality. We are natural detectors of external ‘agency’: children can be persuaded to modify their behaviour if told an invisible agent is watching them.
So far as we know, only humans have a ‘theory of mind’ (seeing yourself as others see you and seeing others as they see themselves) to a level that a sentence like ‘Patrick believes that God understands how much Julie feels the loss of her mother’ can be understood. The Bible assumes language (God speaks) and human language is not paralleled by any other creature. A capacity for empathy can be shown in babies. Watch someone experience a painful event and the same neural networks that light up in their brain light up in yours. Without early attachment to caregivers through love, we fail to thrive. Basic morality is built into primates through the genetics of kinship and altruism. None of this explains religion, where practices must be as much cultural as psychological, and biologists may dismiss God-proneness as an evolutionary by-product (exaptation), but it is not unscientific.
Human consciousness with its reflective capability is what, in a sense, gives the universe consciousness. Although science does not support godly intervention in the macro world, which seems self-organising, the emergent properties of human consciousness provide the capacity for transcendence and immanence such that to speak, for example, of a prompting of the Spirit or the indwelling of the mind of Christ becomes meaningful.
Last, the neural and hormonal inter-connections between the body and the brain are so rich as to render a mind-body dualism meaningless. We feel ‘gutted’ and are ‘struck dumb’. Being human is to be deeply embodied. Our sexual natures reflect this too.
Yet the human brain has primitive structures shared with other species. These have close connections with emotional centres, resulting in an inclination to act on impulse rather than reason. We are likely to self-justify a course of action that allows us to park uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, resulting in bigotry and self-deceit. We are also intensely social animals. We will make sacrifices for our closest (genetic) relatives but equally take against ‘out’ groups, such as gay and transsexual people. Much moral evil comes from our social brains. Classic social psychology experiments showed how readily circumstances can be constructed in which conformity leads to brutal behaviour. Even empathy is not enough. Empathy can be manipulated - studies show that viewing pictures of ill children can lead to instant decisions to give money that take no account of others with greater need.
Blaming this on humans makes little biological sense. Yet clearly, given the state of the world, we need help, salvation in fact. Thanks to our enormously evolved frontal lobes, the ‘seat of reason’, humans are the first creatures to be able to over-ride evolution. But our innate selfishness and ‘groupishness’ (sin if you will) mean that reason alone is unlikely to be sufficient. For Christians, Christ’s exemplar life and his self-sacrifice show another way to address our nature, an indwelling which attunes us to act compassionately, avoid cruelty and care for fellow humans, other creatures and this precious planet.
Science does not tell us why we are here or how to live but it provides a foundation for understanding how we came to be and how our attributes are the way they are, including our sexuality. Nature has rendered us wonderful and flawed, embodied and spiritual, diverse and individual, part of nature but not above it.
Much of the science is new, within the past 100 years. Biblical authors cannot be blamed for not knowing it, but the church might be for not accepting it.
Mukherjee, S. (2016) The Gene: an intimate history. Bodley Head. London, p387.
Myers, DG (2014) ‘Most are straight, some are gay and why it is that way: the science of sexual orientation’. Modern Believing 55 (2) 127-139.