Why We Welcome

I’m going to talk about nature and what's natural. We’ll see how our understanding of nature became a concept of natural law, and what that means. Then I’ll point to some very different lessons we might take from nature. I’m not going to get to it for a little while, but I want to let you know that it’s coming. It’s our mission to grow ethically and spiritually, and I think to grow ethically we need to develop our repertoire of concepts for reflecting on ethical questions. Among those concepts are natural law theories of ethics – which, in accordance with our mission, we’ll look at in a little bit.

First, let us note, on this Pride month, that we Unitarian Universalists have been at the forefront of progress of LGBTQ justice. We can be proud of that. We should remember, however, that, while we’ve been ahead of the curve on attitudes about LGBTQ folk, we have sometimes not been very far ahead of the curve.

As early as the 1950s, some Unitarian ministers were officiating at services of union for same-sex couples. Good for us. But: many of our ministers then were refusing to do such services, and those that did sometimes didn’t tell their congregations and didn’t hold those services in their churches. It was the 1950s.

Since 1970, our Unitarian Universalist Association has been on record as supporting the rights and worth of lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. Still, the lived experience of these folk in UU congregations was often painful. In the 1980s, our national Unitarian Universalist Association conducted a multiyear, nationwide study of UU’s attitudes about sexual orientation. The findings “exposed many negative attitudes, deep prejudices, and profound ignorance” that resulted in LGBTQ people being excluded from full participation in UU congregations.

In 1987, then-President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, William Schulz, addressed the General Assembly that June. Rev. Schulz said:
“We Unitarian Universalists have been the religious leaders in [the area of gay and lesbian rights]: in our establishment of a denominational office; in our support of ministers who perform services of union. But at the moment, our values and principles are being sorely tested: not just by prejudice from outside our doors, but by homophobia from within. Let me put it as directly as I can: far too many of our congregations are choosing not to call or even consider gay or lesbian ministers solely on the basis of their affectional orientation. When we hear questions like these posed about gay or lesbian candidates – ‘But will she talk about anything other than homosexuality? But will we become a “gay church”? But will he be able to counsel heterosexuals? But will the community accept her?’ – when we hear questions like these, we know we are in the grip of a profound terror.”
My guess is that back in 1987 those questions bounced around in this congregation if the possibility of a gay or lesbian minister were discussed. Some of you have been around here long enough to remember. And you’ve seen your own attitudes grow and change, along with the shift of your fellow congregants around you. Rev. Schulz’s 1987 address to the General Assembly went on to say:
“The fear of same-sex love runs deep in Western culture. But I beg us to understand that if such fear is permitted to control us, we will be in violation of everything which Unitarian Universalism stands for in the world. It is not enough to say passively and contentedly, ‘Why, of course, gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregation if they choose to come.’ What is required is the recognition that gay and lesbian people are already members of every single congregation on this continent. The issue is whether they feel supported enough to make their presence known. What we require is the courage and wisdom to acknowledge our own fears, both gay and straight, and to take active steps to make the welcome known to the gay and lesbian community.”
Back in 1987, we may have been ahead of the curve, MAYBE – but were definitely still ON that learning curve, and with a ways to go.

In response to the attitudes revealed by our study, in 1990, our UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association), launched The Welcoming Congregation program along with the Welcoming Congregation Handbook with lesson plans for 10 workshops. Congregations were urged to seek certification as a Welcoming Congregation, and to get that certification required completing a two-year education and discussion program designed to change those attitudes, correct those prejudices, and replace ignorance with knowledge and understanding. The first UU congregation to receive certification received it by the end of 1991.

One thing you may have noticed about Rev. Schulz’s 1987 address was that it was all about the L and the G, and nothing about the BTQ. The 1999 edition of the Welcoming Congregation Handbook was substantially expanded to be more inclusive of transgender identity and bisexual identity, as well as race and ethnicity. Four new workshops were added: “Racism and Homophobia/Heterosexism,” “The Radical Right,” “Bisexuality and Biphobia,” and “Transgender Identity: What it Means.”

In 2003, in the case of Goodridge vs. Department of Health, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex couples could not be excluded from marriage rights in Massachusetts. Hilary Goodridge led a total of 14 plaintiffs in that case -- 7 same-sex couples – and half of those 14, including Hilary Goodridge and her partner Julie Goodridge, were UUs.

In 2006, 16 years after our Welcoming Congregation launched, the milestone 500th congregation to attain the Welcoming Congregation status was reached. There were then, as today, just over 1,000 UU congregations nationwide – and we passed the half-way mark for our congregations being Welcoming Congregations later in 2006. Today, most of our congregations have the status LGBTQ Welcoming. In 2008, the Connecticut Supreme Court required that state to recognize same-sex marriage. After Massachusetts and Connecticut, few people expected Iowa to be the third state to recognize same-sex marriage, but we were – in 2009 – though we also had backlash about that.

Through it all, we UUs have been out in front – even if often only a little in front – in understanding and welcoming LGBTQ folk. Many of us are LGBTQ folk, and what straight folk learn from LGBTQ folk, and what LGBTQ folk learn from other LGBTQ folk – what all of us learn -- is what perfect looks like. To explain what I mean by that, we have to look further back in history.

An idea that goes back in Western civilization for centuries and still occasionally manifesjts is the idea that LGBTQ activity is unnatural. What have been called “sodomy laws” were still on the books in 14 states until 2003 when the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision invalidated them. Those laws often made reference to unnatural acts. I know that few of us would subscribe to the idea that LGBTQ activity is “unnatural” – but let’s explore where this terrible idea came from so that we can better combat it where we see it cropping up.

The “natural law” is supposedly universally valid and therefore “natural” and discoverable by reason alone. The idea is that moral and legal order derives from the nature of the cosmos, or the nature of human beings. Natural law consists of a set of principles that can be seen to be true by our ‘natural light’ or reason. There are religious versions, in which the natural law expresses God’s will for creation, and non-religious versions in which human nature establishes conditions for human flourishing, and the morally right thing to do is to follow what our nature establishes.

When I was young and much taken with the idea of civil disobedience to unjust laws, this idea that were principles higher than the positive laws passed by congress and approved by the courts was very appealing. It's still appealing. This idea that there are principles of justice higher than statutes, principles which courts try to discern and apply, is an important, valuable, even necessary idea. Courts, of course, sometimes get it wrong, and may be criticized when they do, or when we think they do. The court might be getting it right and its critics the ones that are wrong, but we can’t have that discussion unless we presuppose the existence of such higher principles of justice. Presupposing them, we may then proceed to debate about what they are. What we’re really doing in such debates, I think, is trying to organize and articulate our moral intuitions in a way that might provide some guidance for us going forward. Natural law theory says criticism of unjust laws involves appealing to principles that are “discoverable by reason.” I don't think so. Such principles are certainly discussable by reason. Human beings can make arguments to each other about them – and we do. But I'd say the principles are more invented than discovered. But whether we are inventing principles or discovering them, I think it's important that we be able to give reasons for thinking a statute or a court decision is wrong -- and that we may sometimes find those reasons so compelling as to justify civil disobedience.

The dream of reason is to produce arguments so compelling that all people – at least, all people whose reasoning is working properly -- will arrive at the same conclusions – and that is a pipedream, a delusion. What natural law theory fails to account for is that reason, diligently applied by motivated reasoners, can always craft a counter-argument to any argument. The dream of arriving – through a process we self-congratulatorily call ‘reason’ -- at a universally agreed set of principles we can then inerrantly use in all our moral deliberations ain’t gonna happen. And when we expect that it could happen – when we expect reason to eventually yield universal agreement on principles that will settle all moral questions what actually does happen isn’t good.

In particular, let’s look at how natural law theory came to call certain sexual or affectional orientations unnatural. Aristotle gave us a version of natural law which said that what is natural, and therefore good, for any being, is for that being to realize its telos: its end, its purpose, its goal, the reason for its existence and the ultimate aim toward which it strives. Everything has a telos, and the good for that thing is to become what its telos is for it to be. The telos of an acorn is an oak tree. The telos of a knife is to cut.

And, for Aristotle, the telos of a human being is, in a word, flourishing. Actually, his Greek word is eudaimonia, variously translated as flourishing, or well-being, or happiness. I’ll go with flourishing. Our nature has an aim, and what makes something good, then, is that it facilitates realizing the aim our nature. What is good for a dog is what is perfective, or completing, of its doggy nature – what brings it to its fulfillment. What is good for a human is what is perfective, or completing, or fulfilling of human nature: that’s our flourishing.

That doesn’t sound so terrible. Flourishing is surely a good thing. But you may have noticed that what’s being assumed is that all humans have the same nature, and that perfecting or completing or fulfilling what we are as humans will be the same in all humans. Aristotle, we love you, man, but that’s messed up.

Then, in Aquinas’s hands in particular, the idea that everything had a purpose applied to each of our parts. Hence, it was an abuse of reproductive organs to use them for anything other than their “natural” purpose: which was to reproduce. Sexual acts not ordered toward procreation violated natural law; they were unnatural. Aquinas became the official philosopher of Catholicism, and so, to this day, Catholic teaching is that neither same-sex sexual activity, nor even artificial birth control, is permissible because that’s using the reproductive organs for something other than their purpose: to reproduce.

Most of us, I think, recoil from Aquinas’ conclusion, but it’s worth taking some time to clarify why. For one thing, we might say, we shouldn’t look to nature for answers to our moral questions. For another thing, supposing we do look to nature. We now know a lot about nature today that Aristotle and Aquinas did not know. We know, for instance, that species evolve.

If Aristotle had been aware of species evolution, and if he had applied his notion of telos not just to individuals but to species, he probably would have said that the telos of a species is to perfect itself through gradual incremental improvements in its functioning down through the generations. But already we run into a quandry. Take for instance, a species that lived about 6 million years ago and was the last common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Was its telos as a species to evolve into humans, or into chimps, or into bonobos? Which one of those is a fulfilling, a perfecting, of the last common ancestor, while the other two are mere aberrations? That’s not an answerable question – though I kinda like the case for bonobos myself.

Again, we really shouldn't be trying to take moral lessons from nature. Philosophers call that the naturalistic fallacy. But if we were going to look to nature for some pointers, then what nature would show us is that there are an unimaginably large number of branching possibilities – none of them better than others, and none of them having a telos other than to keep on branching out new possibilities, creative new forms.

If we were going to apply nature’s model to human society, then we would celebrate our branching out new possibilities, creative, sometimes, say, flamboyant, new forms for loving, creative new experiments with roles and identities. That’s nature’s way. Nature’s model is diversity, experimentation, and unpredictable change – and for manifesting that in the social realm, we are especially grateful for our LGBTQ folk – and especially proud.

If we were going to look to nature for some pointers, then there’s an even more radical lesson there. Gradual incremental improvements in functioning down through the generations is only part of how evolution works. Sometimes the change isn’t about things working better – like eyesight getting sharper or intestines getting better at digesting a new food source. Sometimes the change is a complete repurposing. In the process of evolution, parts that evolved to serve one purpose get appropriated for an entirely different purpose.

I really want us to understand this feature of how nature works – what “natural” really is – not because nature dictates morality, but because nature's way of species evolution does offer us a metaphor for thinking about how social moral evolution happens. So let me give several examples:

Mammalian forelimbs gradually evolved in one direction into bat wings. Evolving down a different branch, they turned into dolphin fins. But the original purpose of forelimbs was for walking on. Even grasping things with them was an innovation. Certainly, when they first emerged they had nothing to do with either flying or swimming.

Certain insect antennae turned into mandibles, with a function completely different from antennae.

A jaw bone in dinosaurs, fish, and reptiles emerged for reasons that had nothing to do with hearing, but, in mammals, that small bone was appropriated and made into a part of the auditory system.

An ancestor of wasps and bees had an ovipositor (egg-laying tube). It was there to lay eggs, not to sting with -- yet it was appropriated and made into a stinger.

Before there were land animals, certain fish developed a swim bladder, which they could fill with gas, usually air. This allowed the fish to stay at a given depth without expending energy on swimming. The swim bladder evolved into the lung of the earliest lungfish – and from there into the lungs of land animals. This device for staying at a given depth in water turned into the essential step for moving onto land -- which was entirely different from the purpose for which it originally evolved.

Structures that served one purpose get put to very different purposes. It happens all the time. Nothing could be more – shall we say it – natural.

It's easy to miss just how radical a point this is. Through millennia of Western civilization we have been making moral arguments "from nature": that certain actions were "unnatural," and therefore wrong, because they violated something’s purpose. It turns out nature herself repurposes organs. Building upon its inheritance, the lungfish transcended that inheritance and became a new thing on this earth. Bats and dolphins, mandibular and stinging insects, mammalian auditory systems -- and, one way or another, ultimately every complex feature of every species -- built upon its inheritance to transcend that inheritance and become a new thing on this earth.

If we are to draw lessons from nature, the lesson to draw is this: creative new purposes are just as natural, and just as important, as incremental improvements in fulfilling a prior purpose.

I said that what straight folk learn from LGBTQ folk, and what LGBTQ folk learn from other LGBTQ folk – what all of us learn is what perfect looks like. Perfect, we can now see, is not about getting better at some preconceived ideal. Perfect is the ever-branching creative repurposing of whatever we find ourselves with. Perfect is the discovery, or invention, of new ideals rather than attainment of a preconceived ideal. Perfect is becoming who we are, being ourselves, just as we are, just as we love, and just as we are becoming, whatever transitioning we may be in the midst of. How can we not take pride in that? How can we not be welcoming of that?

May it be so.

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