Review of "The Boswell Thesis" by John Lauritsen

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The Boswell Thesis: Essays on Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.
Edited by Mathew Kuefler.
University of Chicago Press 2006.
ISBN 0-226-45740-0 (cloth).
ISBN 0-226-45741-9 (paper).
348 pages.

Reviewed by John Lauritsen

In 1980 John Boswell, a young history professor at Yale, published Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (hereafter CSTH). The book's central message — that the Church was not inherently antigay — was one that many people wanted to hear. CSTH was phenomenally successful, going through five printings in the first year; even two decades later, it was still selling about 2,000 copies per year. Boswell died in 1994 at the age of 47.

The fifteen contributors to this book address a broad range of topics, all more or less influenced by Boswell's work. The first three essays deal with Boswell's thesis (or theses), described by editor Mathew Kuefler as comprising four main points:

“First, that Christianity had come into existence in an atmosphere of Greek and Roman tolerance for same-sex eroticism. Second, that nothing in the Christian scriptures or early tradition required a hostile assessment of homosexuality; rather, that such assessments represented a misreading of scripture. Third, that early medieval Christians showed no real animosity toward same-sex eroticism. Fourth, that it was only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that Christian writers formulated a significant hostility toward homosexuality, and then read that hostility back into their scriptures and early tradition.”

This is a fair summary, but Boswell himself describes his primary thesis more simply: “Much of the present volume ... is specifically intended to rebut the common idea that religious belief — Christian or other — has been the cause of intolerance in regard to gay people.”

A disclaimer: I and my colleagues in the Gay Academic Union (GAU), Wayne Dynes and Warren Johansson, were among Boswell's earliest and most severe critics, and we are mentioned throughout the book. The talks we gave and the pamphlet we published in 1981 are now available, handsomely formatted, in the Library section of the Pink Triangle Trust web site.

One would expect that the main goal of a book entitled “The Boswell Thesis” would be to evaluate criticisms of that thesis, but this happens very selectively, if at all. In the case of my GAU colleagues and me, none of our arguments, major or minor, are given. We are said to write with “animus”, “hyperbole”, “passion”, “vitriol”, etc. — we are described as “harsh” and “unforgiving” and seeking “to undermine the Boswell Thesis” — but the reader can only conjecture what might have prompted our “animus”.

The chapter by Ralph Hexter, “John Boswell's Gay Science: Prolegomenon to a Re-Reading”, is particularly interesting, as Hexter was a personal friend of Boswell's and is the “Ralph” to whom (along with Boswell's parents) CSTH was dedicated. Hexter was Classics Professor at Berkeley and is now president of Hampshire College.

CSTH was often criticised for containing anachronisms, especially with regard to Boswell's deployment of “gay” and “gay people”. Here, in a half dozen pages, Hexter analyzes Boswell's choice of these words, arguing convincingly that Boswell's usage was far more precise and nuanced than his critics realised, and that other words (“homosexual”, etc.) would have been more anachronistic, as well as awkward. Following his discussion of “gay”, Hexter comments perceptively on the current usage of “queer”:

“Ten or fifteen years later another scholar might have considered whether he or she might have want to use the term 'queer,' though I'm virtually certain John would not have. For one thing, by using 'gay,' Boswell was not seeking to highlight outside status or any necessarily minoritarian consciousness; indeed, according to his narrative, for certain cultures at certain periods, being 'conscious of erotic inclination' towards a member of one's own sex was neither exceptional nor a matter for shame or condemnation — nor was it necessarily exclusive.”

With regard to anachronism, Boswell's most antagonistic critics were the “social constructionists”, followers of Michel Foucault, who believed in extreme historic discontinuity. According to the SCers, there were only “homosexual acts” before the middle of the 19th century — but no gay people and no homosexuality. Addressing the SC doctrines Hexter writes:

“In an uncannily prescient prediction of the following ten or fifteen years of dispute, Boswell wrote, 'If the difficulties of historical research about intolerance of gay people could be resolved by simply avoiding anachronistic projections of modern myths and stereotypes, the task would be far simpler than it is. Unfortunately, an equally distorting and even more seductive danger for the historian is posed by the tendency to exaggerate the differences between homosexuality in previous societies and modern ones.'”

And here I am on the side of Hexter and Boswell.

In the fourth section of his essay, Ralph Hexter insinuates that all who reject Boswell's thesis of Christian tolerance are motivated by “parti pris”. He writes: “The first group, who despise Boswell as an apologist ... are well represented by the authors of Homosexuality, Intolerance, and Christianity: A Critical Examination of John Boswell's Work. The three authors evidence considerable learning and no less animus. The conclusion of the third and final section deserves quotation to give a flavor of the whole:” And he then quotes, in condensed and cobbled-together form, the final two paragraphs of my own talk, “Culpa Ecclesiae: Boswell's Dilemma”, starting with my sentence: “It is regrettable that one must be harsh on a work with such considerable merit, but willful dishonesty in a scholar must not be condoned.” Well, I will admit that this sentence is severe, but it comes at the conclusion of an essay in which I gave many examples of Boswell's dishonesty: deliberately suppressing evidence, ignoring major scholarly works hostile to his thesis; misrepresenting Roman laws of the 4th century, and so on. Since my essay is online at the URL above, readers can judge for themselves whether my conclusion was overly harsh.

Carolyn Dinshaw's essay, “Touching on the Past”, discusses CSTH as a phenomenon in publishing and its impact on subsequent gay scholarship. While dipping into several scholarly controversies, she strives to be fair to all concerned, including us GAU heretics.

Mark D. Jordan, a professor of Religion, contributes “On Boswell's Ministry”, which demonstrates that Boswell, a devoutly religious man, was as much a minister as a scholar. Regrettably, Jordan obsessively and gratuitously uses the word “queer”, in ways which would have greatly offended Boswell. With regard to the “longstanding tension between religious and antireligious queer politics” he writes:.

“With considerable hyperbole, and not a little vitriol, John Lauritsen wrote in 1981: 'It is not surprising that Professor Boswell has been enthusiastically hailed by the gay Christians, to whom he appears as a new Savior who will rescue them not only from queerhating religionists, but from gay liberation secularists as well.' What is true in this sentence is that Boswell's fame appeared for the moment to vindicate queer Christians by making Christianity central in queer history as a positive force.”

I comment here that Jordan has truncated my sentence, by omitting its final words: “by demonstrating historically that it's all right to be a gay Christian.” Without those concluding words, the sentence is pointless; however, I deny that it is written with “vitriol”. If anything, the first few paragraphs of my 1981 essay are more playful and ebullient than what I would write now.

There's not space here to comment on the other essays, which are less relevant to the “Boswell thesis”, though interesting in their own right. Amy Richlin's “Fronto + Marcus: Love, Friendship, Letters” — about the relationship between the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his tutor — is provocative, to say the least. An article by Dale B. Martin discusses the interpretation of Romans 1:18-32 — but nowhere in the book is there even a mention of the single most devastating critique of CSTH: Warren Johansson's essay, “Ex Parte Themis: The Historical Guilt of the Christian Church”, which demolished Boswell's reinterpretation of the Pauline passage, I Corinthians VI 9, to which Boswell had devoted an entire appendix. (For Johansson's essay, visit the URL above.)

Boswell was an important gay scholar. For me his greatest contribution is the third chapter of CSTH, “Rome: The Foundation”, which is especially notable for making the case, clearly and forcefully, that the obscure Lex Scantinia of Ancient Rome did not and could not have categorically outlawed sex between males, citizens or otherwise.

However, contrary to Boswell's central thesis, the oppression of gay men really is due to religion. Given the nature of the enterprise, it's understandable that The Boswell Thesis would be celebratory, but it's deplorable that the most trenchant criticisms of Boswell's thesis were swept under the rug.

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