Commentary

Response to Merton Strommen, Part 3

An essay by Tim Fisher

Misusing science in the homosexuality debate

I write in response to Merton Strommen’s counterpoint article in the January issue. In my study of homosexuality and the church, I’ve seen an unhealthy dynamic develop when science is brought into the debate.

I am often struck by the difficulties created by writers
(theologians, parish pastors, youth ministry researchers) when they use science to prop up theological assertions about sexuality. The writer says, “See! Look how the Bible says homosexuality is not part of God’s intention. It’s immoral!” Then he turns to the sciences to demonstrate the supposedly inevitable, bad consequences of the “immoral” behavior and how gay and lesbian people are not “born gay”
and thus can change their orientation—all the while ignoring the strong notes of limitation and tentativeness heard across the breadth of the scientific literature itself. Invariably, the science remains much more cautious about its own implications.

Regardless of how faithfully the writer may support his theological assertions, when the “findings of science” are dropped into the story, these results are too often presented without sufficient breadth, depth, or care. Indeed, when dealing with the extremely complicated and largely mysterious topic of “the science of human
sexuality,” a great amount of breadth, depth, and care is necessary. Without this, the charts and statistics tend to assert themselves rather promiscuously.

Readers may remember Dr. Strommen’s article published in The Lutheran (March 2003), where he supported his assertion that homosexuality was “not part of God’s intention for creation” by references to the scientific literature. Continuing that same basic point in the January Metro Lutheran, he presents quotes from several sources. In
every case, what he presents is at best only part of the story.

For instance, Dr. Strommen highlights a 1998 review of “reparative therapy” literature written by Warren Throckmorton. But he neglects to mention that Throckmorton himself dismisses another of Strommen’s citations, a paper published by Nicolosi et al, which supposedly
provides evidence of change of orientation. Throckmorton writes: “[T]hese results do not confirm that sexual orientation changes.” At best, the results “can be viewed as a broad assessment of self-identity change.” (“Initial empirical and clinical findings concerning the change process for ex-gays.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, pp. 242–248.)

Furthermore, since writing the cited review, Throckmorton has stepped back from directly asserting that, strictly speaking, change of sexual orientation is possible. Instead, he writes, “My current work does not emphasize changing sexual orientation as much as it does achieving congruence with chosen beliefs and values (which may or may
not lead to change of attractions).” Also: “The longer I study this matter the less I am interested in the degree to which sexual attractions change.” (See Throckmorton’s website at www.wthrockmorton.com/). It’s clear that much depends on one’s definition of “change.” The church’s debate is not helped by simplistic assertions one way or the other.

In the case of the Rahman and Wilson citation, Strommen is simply mistaken. As Dr. Rahman writes (in private correspondence), the authors have in reality found substantial evidence that “people are born gay or straight.”

Too often in the church’s debate, the scientific “facts”—loosely, incompletely, and sometimes erroneously presented—come to quickly credit themselves as God’s reasons for condemning all homosexual relationships. Thus the sciences are re-oriented, transformed into the inflammatory and ideological. Too often, readers respond with
fear. In such an environment, a peculiar sort of unreasonable science displaces the central issue: As a church free in Christ to serve the neighbor, how should we respond to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters?

Tim Fisher
Minneapolis, Minnesota