There are certain questions that are just going to be asked of Joel Osteen. He has to know these questions are inevitable. It’s kind of like the presidential race: if you are running for president, you know that certain questions are going to be asked, particularly if people have not appreciated past attempts (by you) to answer those questions. It is up to your staff to help prepare you for those questions.
Let me start by saying that I sympathize with Osteen. I know first-hand that the topic of homosexuality is a difficult one to navigate, and all the more for someone in his position. One point I would raise is that he is in the spotlight, and he and his staff know that there are some predictable questions that he will be asked time and time again. He seems to need some help with language.
Now there is a lot here to discuss, and I am not going to dissect his entire response. I don’t enjoy it when it happens to me. But let me highlight the latter half of the interview in which the subject of etiology comes up. Etiology has been used by folks on both “sides” of the cultural debates – as if the the research there would settle the moral debate. In the so-called “Nature versus Nurture” debates, my experience has been that more liberal voices emphasize Nature so they can discuss behavior as a foregone conclusion. In response to that, traditionalists have a knee-jerk reaction against any evidence from biology and claim instead that Nurture is the key to etiology, as though it were the only logical argument for teaching a traditional sexual ethic. Neither argument is based on an accurate reading/interpretation of the existing data, but I’ll save that for another post. I’ll just say this for now: It is likely that both Nature and Nurture contribute to sexual orientation, but we really do not know all of what factors into etiology.
So how could Osteen handle this predictable question about etiology? I was intrigued by the appeal to his “lane”; he is staying in his lane when he does not delve into the research on etiology and change. I probably do something similar when I mark the boundaries of my knowledge of other issues related to homosexuality. I get that. However, instead of emphasizing his “lane” in this instance, he could acknowledge that he and others do not choose to experience the attractions that they have. He (and others) find themselves attracted to people of the same- or opposite-sex (and some people will discuss attractions to both sexes). So I have something like this in mind:
No, I did not choose to experience my attraction to the opposite-sex, and I don’t think most people choose to experience attraction to the same-sex. We feel the attractions that we feel. For some people who experience same-sex attractions those attractions are so strong and persistent that they would describe them as their orientation. They feel oriented (sexually, physically, emotionally) toward the same sex. Most people today tend to then identify themselves as gay – as a way of referencing this attraction or orientation toward the same sex. It is their identity. But others choose not to identify themselves by their attractions, nor do they choose to act on the feelings they have. In other words, this is the volitional part of our discussion. This is where there are choices to be made: What a person does with the attractions he or she has, and how that person forms his or her identity. So the question is not, “Is my orientation a choice?” but, rather, “What choices do I have when it comes to my sexuality, my identity, and my behavior?”
Again, I sympathize with any Christian leader who is trying to handle these types of questions in the national spotlight. I just don’t know how much patience people will have with staying in a “lane” given the nature of the debates today, as well as the relative influence someone like Osteen has given the size of his audience.
But there are ways for a Christian to respond to these kinds of questions – and at the same time to highlight that the question itself (in this case) is based upon several leaps in logic that warrant discussion.