Kass begins his book by explaining what he means by a "philosophic" reading of Genesis:
Addressed to believers and nonbelievers alike, it [this book] should be of special interest to thoughtful children of skeptics, people who (like the author) now have good reason to want to see for themselves and to learn firsthand what it was and is that their parents or grandparents rejected. For though we are knowledgeable, powerful, and privileged with opportunities beyond our ancestors' wildest dreams, many of us remain psychically, morally, and spiritually adrift. . . . What, you may well ask, do I mean by "philosophic"and "philosophic reading"? By "philosophic" I mean wisdom-seeking and wisdom-loving, after the literal meaning of the ancient Greek term philosophia, the love and pursuit of wisdom.
Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (N.Y.: Free Press, 2003), p. 1.
Kass is looking for wisdom in Genesis. He is at pains to tell us that he is not pursuing a "pious" or overtly theological reading of Genesis. But I think he would agree that even the most pious or theological is also looking for wisdom. The difference is that the more explicitly theological approach grants this particular source of wisdom a uniquely authoritative status. But the important point is that Kass is also seeking wisdom in Genesis. We who believe Genesis is of divine origin are, not surprisingly, very much committed to the same quest but with even greater determination given the unique status we believe the Scriptures have as a font of wisdom.
These preliminary remarks are important because they expose a great fallacy and lie repeated often by some Catholic politicians this election year. That fallacy is that religiously rooted wisdom is something private that must be kept isolated from political policy. Wisdom is wisdom. To exile a source of wisdom from public debate just because it speaks of God is philistinism in its worst form. It is to stupidly cut ourselves off from the wisdom offered by a great cultural tradition supported by millennia of human experience--a wisdom we need now more than ever as our society sinks into chaotic moral relativism.
In this essay, I will focus on Kass' interesting remarks on Sodom and the sin of Sodom. Many biblical scholars today will flee the traditional, text-based view that in the famous story of Sodom in Genesis 19, in which the men of Sodom seek to sexually assault the angels or strangers visiting Lot, the Scriptures are condemning homosexual acts. These liberal scholars will instead propose in their revisionist quest that the story is merely about lack of hospitality! The goal is to exclude any prescriptions about sexual behavior from the story and make it just another parable about being nice and welcoming to other people. Of course, this revisionism is part of the agenda to argue sexual sin--or in secular terms, sexual dysfunction-- out of existence in the modern Western mind. The goal is to make sin a virtue so that the sexual excesses of our current society can proceed with the approval of all right-thinking and reasonable people.
Yet, Kass, even with his philosophic reading of Genesis, sees the sexual aspect as central to the story. In contrast to liberal scholars who rewrite the text, Kass reads the text forthrightly and draws wisdom from it even without an overt religious point of view. Kass reads Genesis much as he would read other great classics of Western culture such the works of Plato or Aristotle.
Kass is looking for wisdom, not pursuing a politically correct agenda. Here is some of the wisdom, highly relevant to our current situation, that Kass finds in the famous Sodom story in Genesis 19. In this excerpt, Kass begins commenting at the point that the men of Sodom come to Lot's home seeking the two strangers visiting Lot:
All the men of the city, from every quarter, young and old--including, presumably, also the married ones, and among them, presumably also Lot's sons-in-law! (see 19:4)-- come to abuse the strangers. They seek to "know them" merely carnally, and even then, not freely but forcibly, not face-to-face like human beings, but from behind like animals.
Kass, p. 327 (original emphasis).
Notice that Kass does not evade the plain facts of the story: the men of Sodom are united in the quest to sexually assault the strangers. To put it bluntly, they want anal sex. It is not the passive sin of not welcoming someone, as some liberal scholars would mislead us into thinking. It is a matter of aggressive assault to satisfy a misguided view of pleasure and human interaction.
Lot panics and even offers his own daughters as substitutes to the mob. Kass continues at this point:
But the Sodomites reject Lot's offer, and, their lust turned to rage, they focus instead on his imputation of their wickedness. They turn on Lot, threatening him with worse than rape, ostensibly because, although he is in truth only an outsider, he presumes to judge them (19:9). Perhaps they know deep down that they are wicked, and therefore hate the messenger who dares to tell them so. More likely, they hold themselves beyond good and evil, bound only by their own habitual selfish ways. For these city folk, outsiders are of no account, and even less so are their notions of justice and right: rejecting Lot's assertion that what they demand is wicked (in some absolute sense), the Sodomites insist on adhering only to their own Sodomite ways. The Sodomites thus endorse not only xenophobia and sodomy, but also moral relativism-- all exaggerated expressions of the "love of the same."
Kass, pp. 327-28.
What a passage! Kass' entire large book (700 pages) is worth that paragraph. In response to Lot's judging them, the Sodomites respond with hate and rage. Just listen to the news, and you will see that hate and rage directed especially against the Catholic Church when she dares to call sin by its name. The psychological roots of that hatred lie, as Kass points out, in denial of what one knows is really true, or in the arrogant rejection of any transcendent moral standard that has any right to judge one's actions. Kass ties together the hostility to strangers, the lust for sodomy, and moral relativism. Here is where the point of lack of hospitality does have a role. Yet, it is not so much a lack of hospitality but the presence of hostility. And the text makes clear that this hostility to the stranger is motivated by lust. Lust is inherently hostile because it does not respect the human. Lust dares not really look you in the eye because lust is seeking to use you, not to know the truth about you. So when the Scriptures speak of the sex act as "knowing" someone, it teaches a great and central truth about the purpose of the sex act. The Sodomites claim to want to "know" the strangers, but they are perverting the meaning of that phrase. What they really want is to use the strangers.
That is why lust can be said to be, in a way, xenophobic. Lust hates the stranger and therefore uses the stranger. The opposite of xenophobia is to see the stranger as a fellow human to be authentically known, not used. To really know the truth about someone is incompatible with lust. The truth about someone as a unique and unrepeatable person demands by its nature respect and commitment, not use or abuse. That is what chastity is: to respect the boundaries because we respect the truth of the person. But first we must look for the truth of the person, and go beyond the body as a mere tool for pleasure. Chastity is a response to reality. Contrary to the way we usually think or speak, lust is not natural in the sense of being realistic. Lust is unnatural in the sense of falsifying the other's reality. Lust conveniently treats the other as a stranger as a prerequisite to assaulting the other.
The truth about male and female is their destiny for complementary union open to new life, as recounted earlier in Genesis. The Sodomites in their lust rejected that truth. Their "exaggerated love of the same" is now being codified, as we speak, in the United States, with Massachusetts in the lead. It is a flight from reality for which we will pay dearly, as we have paid dearly for our earlier flights from reality. And yet, many of our politicians cannot even bring themselves to support an amendment to stop this imminent danger.