On ‘Bilingual’ Pastoral Theology

Recently I went on a walk with a friend, both of us sipping takeaway cups of Starbucks and she pushing her youngest child, chicken pox-afflicted, in the stroller. My friend teaches theology and ethics, and we’d agreed to meet up and talk about matters LGBTQ.

It was an especially rich conversation, but for now I just wanted to mention one thing my friend said that struck me as profound and helpful. My friend began by admitting that she really struggles with what’s become a standard gay Christian testimony: “God made me this way and wants me to flourish, so God must want me to be true to myself here.”

At this point in the conversation I was prepared to start talking about a theology of the fall and original sin and analyze theologically what might be problematic with this particular way of framing the issue. But my friend said simply (and here, of course, I’m paraphrasing from memory and trying to capture the spirit of our conversation), “I can’t help but think about that story in relation to my daughter with Down syndrome. Did God make her this way? Well, I certainly believe God providentially ordered it. Does God want her to be just the way she is? Yes! And yet she is hindered and suffers in obvious ways because of Down syndrome—so ‘no’ as well. Does God want her to be herself and for us to help her live to her full potential, Down syndrome and all? Yes! And yet we hope that the suffering that is part and parcel of Down syndrome will not be true of our daughter when God raises the dead.”

Then my friend said, “I don’t know if you think that’s a bad comparison with being gay, but it certainly gives me pause when I hear someone say, ‘God made me this way and wants me to be happy.’ On the one hand, I think, Yes, absolutely! God wasn’t taken by surprise or thrown for a loop when you discovered you were gay. On the other hand, I think, just as in the case of Down syndrome, it isn’t always easy to draw a direct line from what God providentially orders to what may be called straightforwardly ‘good.’ Is Down syndrome ‘good’? Well, my daughter is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me… and yet, and yet… Is being gay ‘good’? I know that I am glad my gay friends are who they are… and yet, and yet….”

Obviously, this raises more questions than it answers. Nonetheless, I found the analogy with Down syndrome to be a particularly suggestive one and worthy of more reflection.

And I found myself recalling this conversation with my friend yesterday when I read about Daniel Mattson’s concern with my and others Christians’ willingness to describe ourselves as gay or lesbian. Mattson’s basic point is one I wholeheartedly agree with: “ontologically speaking, my core identity is as a man, made in the image and likeness of God.” This is because God’s creation of humanity as male and female reveals our being and vocation, notwithstanding the fact that the fall causes some of us to perceive it otherwise. Mattson goes on: “This truth about who I am, stitched into my very embodiedness as a man, supersedes any subjective experience I might have of ‘feeling (or being) gay,’” and I agree with that too. I especially like the way Fr. Richard John Neuhaus put it: “In the Christian tradition, being true to yourself means being true to the self that you are called to be.” For those of us who experience same-sex attraction, that means that our truest “self” isn’t disclosed to us by our sexual desires; rather, the “self” to which we’re being conformed is revealed in the Genesis story of creation and—ultimately—in the fulfillment of that story, in the person of Christ himself, the true image of God and the one whom we’ll eventually resemble (Philippians 3:20-21).

What I think Mattson obscures or confuses, however, is that ethics and pastoral theology needs to speak two languages, not just one. Of course we need to be able to speak the language of creation. Our embodiment as male and female is a given, and this sexually differentiated gift will be healed and redeemed, not discarded, in the eschaton (as Beth Felker Jones has recently explored so helpfully in relation to Augustine and Calvin). But on the other hand, we must also speak the language of fallen experience. When Mattson writes that his “true orientation is towards women, my true sexual complement,” he is eliding the distinction between our created sexual difference and gay and lesbian people’s experience (“orientation”) of being attracted to the same sex. Mattson’s argument thus makes it difficult for same-sex attracted Christians to speak clearly about their unique trials and needs vis-à-vis their opposite-sex attracted fellow believers.

Likewise, when Mattson says that a “homosexual ‘orientation,’ no matter how strongly it is subjectively experienced within our person, does not exist within God’s blueprint for humanity,” again I think he misses a crucial distinction. If “God’s blueprint for humanity” means God’s original creative intention, then I agree with Mattson that experiencing a homosexual orientation falls outside that blueprint. In other words, I think if there had been no fall, I wouldn’t be gay.

It’s equally vital, though, for pastoral theology to speak of God’s sovereign, providential care for the world as we know it—the sinful, broken, fallen world. Under God’s sovereign care for that world, we need to be able to say to gay and lesbian people that their sexuality may become an occasion for them to experience God’s grace. They can thrive under God’s care, even if their attractions to members of the same sex don’t diminish or change. And they can also find their same-sex attraction itself to be the thing that is taken up by God and used as the means to draw them out of themselves, as Eve Tushnet, for instance, has described here.

A couple of years ago Elizabeth Scalia said all this much better than I could. And the apostle Paul provides the theological bedrock for such a view when he says both that his “thorn in the flesh” is a messenger of Satan (“outside God’s blueprint”) and that it is precisely the way in which he encounters the grace and power of the risen Christ (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). If you asked Paul whether he should identify as a “strong, whole person” since that’s the way God made him to be, and the way he will be in the resurrection, or a “weak, thorn-pricked Christian” since that’s the way he experienced his life, I expect he wouldn’t have accepted the alternative. “Both,” he might have answered. Or, “It depends on what you mean.”

To go back to the (imperfect) analogy with Down syndrome, I worry that a perspective like Mattson’s would only be able to say one thing to my friend about her daughter: that a disability is not part of God’s original plan for humanity and that therefore we shouldn’t use a term like “Down’s syndrome” because God never intended people to identify themselves by their fallen conditions.

But Christian theology can’t be content with that perspective. The gospel insists that we must also learn a second language—the paradoxical, hard-to-speak language which says that things outside of God’s blueprint may become the precise means by which God teaches us the love of God and neighbor we might not otherwise learn. We must say both that this world is “not the way it’s supposed to be” and that Christ’s “power is made perfect in”—in, not outside of—“weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

6 thoughts on “On ‘Bilingual’ Pastoral Theology

  1. Pingback: On ‘Bilingual’ Pastoral Theology » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. Spot on, Wes! I just left a comment on Daniel’s post before seeing your blog article here and I basically suggested the same thing–except I used the analogy between the Deaf community and the deaf community. He is not getting the fact that we are not making an ontological argument. So his argument is barking up the wrong tree. Its about naming our experience, not basing an identity on sexuality.

  3. Pingback: Homosexuality and the Resurrection of Disability | Spiritual Friendship

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