briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, August 30, 2019

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, August 30, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Is Homosexuality Genetic? New Research Reveals an Old Story

We’re going to be looking today at a headline story of massive worldview significance. It has to do with the question as to whether or not sexual orientation, as it is defined, can be explained by genes. What we’re going to see is that behind that question is an urgency, and the primary urgency isn’t biological, it’s moral.

First, let’s turn to the reporting in The Washington Post. Lindsey Bever reports with a headline, “There’s No ‘Gay Gene,’ But Genetics Are Linked to Same-Sex Behavior, New Study Says.” As she reports, “There is no one gene that determines a person’s sexual orientation, but genetics, along with environment, play a part in shaping sexuality, a massive new study shows.” Well, the massive new study is indeed massive. It was published yesterday in the journal, Science.

A lot to look at here, but for example, just consider that opening sentence. We are told that “no one gene determines a person’s sexual orientation, but genetics,” and then there is the phrase, “along with environment, play a part in shaping sexuality.” Now, that’s offering a massive qualification. The headline is about genes, but in the very first sentence, there’s the qualification that it’s genes, along with environmental factors. Environmental factors mean influences that would come into an individual’s life. It’s not so much about chemicals, it’s more about relationships and experiences.

The Washington Post explains, “Researchers analyzed DNA from hundreds of thousands of people and found that there are a handful of genes clearly connected with same-sex sexual behavior. The researchers say that, although variations in these genes cannot predict whether a person is gay, these variants may partly influence sexual behavior.” Again, as you look at an article like this, notice the words that have been inserted. The most important word inserted in that paragraph is “may,” and then the second most important word is “partly” — “may partly influence sexual behavior.” Now, that can say a great deal, but more likely, it doesn’t say much at all. When you have to conditionalize it by saying these variants may partly influence sexual behavior, well, you have just added all kinds of room, all kinds of elasticity for other arguments, other influences, and frankly, even for the refutation of what you just said.

I’m looking now not at The Washington Post article, but at the scientific report as published in the journal, Science. One of the most interesting things you see in reading the details of the report is that they’re not actually even talking about sexual orientation as it’s defined per se in the study. They’re looking merely at same-sex sexual behavior. Now, that’s very interesting because now you have another conditionality that’s thrown into this, and the mainstream media have largely missed that point. At the very end of the article in Science, scientists writing the article have offered their own contextualized and very conditional, tentative understanding of their research.

They wrote, “Our findings provide insights into the biological underpinnings of same-sex sexual behavior, but also underscore the importance of resisting simplistic conclusions, because the behavioral phenotypes are complex, because our genetic insights are rudimentary, and because there is a long history of misusing genetic results for social purposes.” Three huge clauses inserted now into the formal academic research. Virtually none of them are treated significantly in the mainstream media reports.

The first is the language that behavioral phenotypes are complex. That means the human beings are such complex creatures that there is no adequate reductionistic explanation for who we are for how we may respond to just about anything, or to how we behave — human behavior, human cognition, human emotions, human intuitions. We are so complex, it’s virtually impossible to believe that X or Y or Z can explain who we are and what we do. We are indeed complex.

Secondly, the condition was because our genetic insights are rudimentary. That is to say that as much as we know now about genetics, genetics is still a fairly modern science. When you have the scientists saying that our knowledge is rudimentary, that is basically in the beginning stages, that should warn us against reaching any kind of comprehensive conclusions about reality.

The third clause was, “Because there is a long history of misusing genetic results for social purposes.” That’s huge, and we’re going to return to that in just a moment.

One of the most basic distinctions in reasoning is between causation and correlation. Correlation means if you look at this particular reality, these are factors that seem to come up again and again and again. That’s correlation. It’s a parallelism. It’s an association, but that’s different than causality. Causality says A leads to B. If you do C, it will lead to D.

One of the realities we have to face, and this is something that should add some humility to our understanding of humanity, we actually aren’t very good at proving or demonstrating causality across the board. It would interest many Americans to know that when you have something like the Food and Drug Administration, asking whether a drug works, it basically operates only on correlation. Is it correlated? Is it associated with good results? Does it lead to an alleviation of pain, or does it lead to the end of an infection or the mitigation of a virus? It’s correlation. The reality is, that even many pharmaceutical makers don’t have much of an idea of how some drugs even work. They know something about some drugs, but they know very little about others. They just know it works. In much of life correlation is actually pretty adequate. It’s good enough for most of the things we do. It’s even good enough for the prescription of medicine in many cases, but it’s not good enough for morality.

The report in The Washington Post included these words, “The researchers were able to find five genetic variants that were statistically associated with same-sex sexual behaviors, but none had a large effect and none could itself predict same-sex behaviors.” They used the words “sexual behaviors” because behavior is what the study considered, and you’ll notice that was even in the headline, but in much of the current cultural conversation over the past, say 24 hours, the word “orientation” has been inserted rather than “behavior.”

A fascinating insight to just about every dimension in this story is provided by an article published yesterday at The New York Times by Steven M. Phelps and Robbee Wedow. They began the article by writing, “As researchers in biology and sociology, who are also gay men, we’ve long wondered and debated whether sexual orientation has any biological basis. We followed the ascent in the 1990’s of the ‘gay gene’ finding, which claimed that male sexual orientation was named to specific DNA markers, and then watched as that result was called into question. We have wondered,” they wrote, “whether the two of us, who differ in so many ways could really trace our common identity to a shared biology.” Stand-alone words in the next paragraph: “New data are finally giving us answers.”

Let’s stop there for a moment. As we’ve already seen, there aren’t many answers provided in this research. Even the researchers, when they came to the end of the article said, “There aren’t many answers here. The science is rudimentary.”

But these two writers continued by telling us, “A study published today in Science looked at the DNA in sexual behavior of nearly 500,000 people. It found that the sex of your sexual partners is in fact influenced by your genes.”

Let’s stop there for a moment. No, it didn’t. Again, there’s correlation. It doesn’t even argue for causation. But here, you will notice that these two writers again are driven by a moral impulse far more than by a biological impulse. That’s understandable, but it’s very important that we observe it. The writers then said, “The study suggested in other words that while biology shapes our most intimate cells, it does so in tandem with our personal histories, with the idiosyncratic cells that unfold in a larger cultural and social context.”

Well, they admitted the fact that there is no basic exclusive genetic explanation even claimed in this research, but they do claim that it does demonstrate that there is a genetic influence on sexual behavior, especially when it comes to same-sex sexual behavior. But as we saw in looking at the original research, that’s an overstatement of sorts.

Stepping back in time, we need to understand that this has been an ongoing preoccupation on the part of some and interest on the part of many, going back almost 20 years. This kind of conversation arose with what was identified in the beginning as the Gay Rights Movement, and there was a very clear moral dimension to it. That moral dimension was this — and this is what’s most important in a Christian worldview analysis — the moral impulse was this: If it can be demonstrated that what is called sexual orientation is somehow tied to biology or essential being in any sense, then it can’t be wrong, it can’t be immoral, it can’t be broken, it can’t be abnormal. The journal, Science, where this research was published this week, has been at this issue for some time. Back about 1999–2000, the journal released a report, which had refuted earlier claims to have discovered a so-called “gay gene.”

Back in 1991 and in 1993, there were early reports from scientists claiming to have found and even to have identified a so-called gay gene. Michael Bailey had published his research in 1991. The research subjects were mostly male identical twins. But in 1993, Dean Hamer and Simon LeVay, Hamer of the National Cancer Institute, and LeVay, a neuroscientist formerly with the Salk Institute, argued that they had actually found a biological basis, a genetic basis for the claim of sexual orientation, a same-sex sexual orientation. They made the claim that there was a genetic determinant in the Xq28 region of the genome, but what happened just a few years later is that other scientists came back to refute that particular claim, saying that there was no adequate scientific basis for making the claim of a gay gene, or even a pattern of gay genes. But Simon LeVay, who was a very prominent activist in the Homosexual Rights Movement at the time, and that’s what it was known as at the time, he made the point very clear when he said this, “A genetic component in sexual orientation says this is not a fault and this is not your fault.” Again, what we see is that the basic impulse all along has been moral, not so much biological.

There has been the attempt to try to ground and to explain human sexual behavior only in naturalistic, materialistic, scientific, biological terms. This is a form of essentialism. It’s a form of determinism. It’s a form of arguing that we are, in essence, merely biological machines that much of who we are, and much of what we do, and even whom we love or are attracted to, is programmed into us even before we are born. This was a pushback against some of the earlier arguments for the origin of same-sex sexual attraction, which had looked mostly at environmental factors and relational factors, arguments such as that male homosexuality was primarily brought about by the absence of a strong father figure, a strong male figure in the most formative years of a boy’s life.

You’re likely to see a great deal of cultural conversation and media reporting on this particular scientific research in days, weeks, even months ahead. As a matter of fact, as we have seen, this is an unfolding issue that has a dynamic all its own. There is an incessant demand for a scientific explanation not only of sexual attraction, but of just about everything. On the one hand, we come to understand that in a secular worldview, eventually, nature is everything, and that means that nature has to explain everything. Of course, Christians understand that we’re not naturalists, we are theists. We operate with the understanding that an omnipotent, sovereign, divine Creator made the universe for His glory. He’s the explanation. Nature does not explain itself. It can’t explain itself. Only the Creator can explain nature. Most importantly, only the Creator can explain and define the human creature that He has made in His own image.

Part II

The Impulse to Ground Homosexuality in Biological Terms Is Driven By Morality, Not Just Science

Next, the phrase, “Sexual orientation” can be confusing, so let’s just think about it this way: a pattern of sexual erotic attraction. Let’s just call it that. The argument being made in this article and the moral impulse behind it to normalize homosexuality and homosexual relationships and behaviors, and of course now, that also is expanded to what is an expanding list of letters, LGBTQ. The list will go on. You can probably count in months how long it will be before someone claims to have found some kind of biological basis or genetic correlation with an attraction, which might be described as polyamorous. That’s the coming thing. You can count on it.

But here’s where Christians, thirdly, need to step back and ask a question. If we find nature to appear to say something, is nature telling us the truth? And if we find nature telling us something, does that mean that we are to draw our moral understanding from nature alone? That would make us practical naturalists, but frankly, that’s where many people are insisting we must go. Let’s think about that for a moment.

Number one, we’re not naturalists, and we can’t be practical naturalists. We can’t act as if we are. That means that even as we follow a biblical worldview, we come to understand that as you follow the biblical story, the biblical narrative, the unfolding truth that God shows us, we move from creation to fall to redemption to new creation. In looking at headline news like this, we need to recognize that those first two movements of the Bible story are absolutely crucial. We’re talking about the distinction between creation and the fall. Now, as we look at creation of the cosmos today, we still see the structures that God has given us in creation. We still see the vestiges of His glory. Let’s be very thankful for that. We come to understand that even as the fall corrupted God’s created order, it did not obliterate the image of God in us. It did not obliterate the glory of God in creation.

Paul in Romans 1 tells us that creation is telling us the truth if we will only see it. The problem is we won’t see it. That’s because we are sinners, and that gets to the point. If we are looking, say, at the genetic code, the genome of human beings, what are we looking at? Well, as Christians, we understand that what we are looking at is evidence of a fallen creation, which is to say, we are looking at creation, corrupted and distorted by sin.

Is there biological evidence for that? Yes, there is. Biologists tell us that in every single human genome, that is every individual human genome, there are genetic errors. There are inexplicable genetic dimensions. Every one of us knows that there is something wrong with us, and above all that, we have to understand that this is why Christians live by the Word of God. We have no choice. Creation is fallen, and we’re fallen, so we can see and perceive something of what God is telling us in nature, such that as Paul says, “We’re without excuse,” but the reality is we can’t see and we won’t see the truth that saves, the truth that clarifies, the truth that points to ultimate reality. For that, we are absolutely dependent upon the holy Scripture.

Here’s the bottom line: In Eden, in the perfection of creation, there would have been nothing wrong with a single human genome. Nothing wrong. Everything would have been perfect. Everything would have been perfectly aligned with God’s glory and with God’s moral character — everything. When we find anything in the created order, anything as we’re looking through a microscope or a telescope, anything when we’re just observing with our eyes, anything we see in the mirror, anything we understand in our own conscience that is wrong, that isn’t explained by Eden. It’s explained by the fall. That’s explained by human sinfulness, so if we find or argue that there’s a genetic basis for anything or even merely that genes contribute to A, B, or C, the reality is that we’re looking at the human genome, the human genetic structure as affected by and corrupted by sin. To find something in nature now is not a sufficient moral explanation of anything.

But you do understand what Simon LeVay said so many years ago, “A genetic component in sexual orientation says this is not a fault and this is not your fault.” That shows you the moral impulse once again, and that moral impulse is incredibly strong, and it’s not just members of the LGBTQ community, it’s also the intellectual elites and others in society who so desperately want largely because of their own secular worldview, to come up with some kind of biological or scientific explanation for everything, but it’s not just an explanation. It comes down to a moral excuse for everything or anything.

One final thought on this, honestly speaking, there is plenty of evidence in nature of the wrongness of homosexual sexual orientations, or even impulses and affections. Why? It is because nature cries out even the basic complimentarity between males and females in a species. It is because nature demonstrates the mandate of reproduction. “Male and female created he them.” But nature is not enough. We’re absolutely dependent upon Scripture to tell us not only who God is, but who we are, and how we are to live, and what it means to be male and female. So, watch this headline story as it continues to unfold in the cultural conversation, because what you’re going to see and what you’re going to hear is moral confusion driven by a moral urgency.

Part III

Can an Atheist State Regulate Reincarnation? A Collision Between the Worldviews of the Communist Party of China and the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama

Next, I turn to a headline this week in The Wall Street Journal. The article is by Walter Russell Mead. It’s entitled, “A Visit With the Dalai Lama.” As the subhead tells us, “He vows that Chinese law won’t govern the conditions of his reincarnation.” Well, there’s plenty to look at here.

Walter Russell Mead writes the Global View column for The Wall Street Journal, and he’s one of the most insightful observers of the world seen today. He made a visit to the Dalai Lama, and as he makes clear, that’s not easy to pull off. He writes about the fact that given the belief that cows are sacred, cars and all traffic have to avoid cows. He is in India, visiting the Dalai Lama, who is an exile from his home in Tibet, but then, Walter Russell Mead writes, “This high in the mountains, goats, sheep, feral dogs, small children and even the occasional yak all kept our driver alert.” He said, “This was not the worst traffic I had seen in India. I remember the bottleneck caused by an elephant going the wrong way on the main road during rush hour in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar.”

Now, why would Walter Russell Mead go through such an endurance test to visit with the Dalai Lama? Looked at in terms of world religion, the Dalai Lama is actually the head of a fairly small religious movement, but it has vast influence because he is a modern, you might even say post-modern religious celebrity, even on the Western scene, maybe especially on the Western scene. To so many secular Westerners, especially in Hollywood, in New York, and elsewhere, the Dalai Lama is particularly fascinating because he offers spirituality virtually without theology, or at least Westerners don’t believe that he has any theology that’s dangerous. It’s not going to dictate their sexual lives, so they’re all for having a spiritual guru who’s for peace and wellness and compassion, leaving off all the part about law.

Many Tibetans believe that the Dalai Lama is “An emanation of the bodhisattva of compassion.” In other words, he is the reincarnation of the divine spirit of compassion, as understood within Buddhism. Reincarnation turns out to be especially crucial here. One of the key worldview distinctions between the historic worldview of the West, based upon Christianity, and the East, based upon Eastern religious variance, is the difference in the understanding of time in history. The Western understanding of time is linear, past, present, and future, time moving in a direction like an arrow. The Eastern conception of time is circular. It’s like a wheel that turns over, over and over again. History is one giant circle. It’s one giant cycle, and of course, that makes all the difference in the world.

If you believe that history is moving in a linear direction, past, present and future, again, moving forward like an arrow, then that order is the way you think about the future. The future has never happened in the past. It’s something entirely new. If you believe that history is circular, then it’s just an unfolding of what’s already basically predetermined. Again, largely a basic distinction between the worldviews of the East and the West, the Western worldview based upon ancient classical civilizations, including Judaism and Christianity. The Bible, in both the Old Testament and the New, presents conclusively and clearly a linear view of history. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In the end is the eschaton, brought about by God’s sovereign decree. And, of course, Jesus is identified as the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.

Now, just to offer another obvious clarification, if you’re genuinely holding to that linear view of history, you don’t and you can’t believe in reincarnation. Now, that doesn’t mean that many people, who in their everyday lives operate in a linear view of history don’t tell you that they believe in reincarnation. There are millions of people walking around in America with deeply contradictory worldviews. They say they believe in a linear view of history, birth, and life, and death, past, present, and future, but then they’ll tell you apparently with a straight face that they believe in reincarnation, which is absolutely incompatible with the linear understanding of history.

They cannot operate at work without a linear understanding of history. When they plan their lives, they operate with a linear understanding of history, but when it comes to spirituality, they think reincarnation is cool.

But to give him a clear understanding, the Dalai Lama does not believe that reincarnation is cool. He believes that reincarnation is real and inevitable, and he believes himself to be the latest emanation of the bodhisattva of compassion, and there will be another after him. The question is: Who will that be? It will be the reincarnation of the same spirit.

Here’s where all of this conflicts with the Communist Party in China. The Communist Party has cracked down on Tibet, a territory it has claimed. It has exiled the Dalai Lama. It represses Buddhism in the area, and it wants control of everything because a Communist Party by his very existence, demands to control everything. It’s also, as the Communist Party, officially materialistic and by its doctrine atheistic, so it doesn’t believe in reincarnation, but here’s the rub: The Chinese Communist Party has to be, by its own declaration, in charge of everything in China, including the reincarnation in which it does not officially believe.

Walter Russell Mead denotes that the Dalai Lama, this Dalai Lama, “has become the most famous Buddhist in 2,500 years.” Speaking of the fact that there will be an inevitable transition, Walter Russell Mead writes, “In what may be the world’s only example of an atheist state extending its jurisdiction into the spirit world, Beijing has declared that any attempted reincarnation must ‘comply with Chinese laws.'”

Then, Mead tells us that against the Chinese repression of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, in an act of defiance and resistance, is refusing to allow his reincarnation to be orchestrated by the Chinese Communist Party. Mead tells us that the Dalai Lama intends to be reincarnated outside Chinese rule. What we see here is the very awkward collision between two irreconcilable worldviews, neither of them the Christian biblical worldview. It’s a collision between the atheistic, materialistic worldview of the Chinese Communist Party, hungry indeed omnivorous for total power, and the worldview of Tibetan Buddhism, as represented by the Dalai Lama. It’s a collision between an atheistic state and the politically powerful claim of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

You might know that you’re in something of a worldview emergency if you officially don’t believe that something exists, and then pass a law declaring that, though it doesn’t exist, you are in charge of it. Worldviews matter. They always matter, and they always show up in the headlines somewhere, and it’s easy to see just where they show up here.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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Monday is the Labor Day holiday in the United States. I’ll look forward to meeting you on Tuesday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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