I haven’t yet been able to read Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert cover to cover, but I do want to highlight one portion of it that I’ve been thinking about recently in relation to our project here at Spiritual Friendship. Towards the end, Butterfield writes:
What good Christians don’t realize is that sexual sin is not recreational sex gone overboard. Sexual sin is predatory. It won’t be “healed” by redeeming the context or the genders. Sexual sin must simply be killed. What is left of your sexuality after this annihilation is up to God. But healing, to the sexual sinner, is death; nothing more and nothing less.
From the context, I think it’s clear that Butterfield is making an anti-Pelagian point. She’s saying that what we sexual sinners need is not a touch-up operation that amounts to little more than a project of moral self-improvement. What we need, instead, is total, absolute surrender—death to the entirety of our old ways of thinking and living, and rebirth on God’s terms. So, for instance, she goes on to say that a lot of young Christians think their pornography addictions will be cured if they can just get married. (A misreading of 1 Corinthians 7:9, I might add.) But no, Butterfield says, “Marriage does not redeem sin. Only Jesus can do that.” The project of self-salvation, even with something sanctified like marriage, is doomed from the get-go.
Now, the reason I’ve been thinking about this is that it could be read as antithetical to the work we’re trying to do here at SF. We say things like this: Our same-sex love can “express itself as chaste friendship or mystical approach to God rather than as gay sex.” Which could imply that we think our being gay shouldn’t be surrendered to daily death so much as it should be reinterpreted or redeemed or reformed.
And I get emails from readers who, for that reason, wonder if what we’re saying is really true and faithful. One person told me recently that if gay sex is sinful, then surely everything else about being gay is equally problematic. Surely it’s not enough, this person told me, for you to give up having gay sex; you should also, if you’re consistent, feel the pressure of trying to tweeze out every last part of you that’s gay and repent of it and renounce it too. Surely, if you’re consistent, he said, you can’t say no to the behavior and the think the orientation is redeemable. And I can imagine Butterfield’s words, regardless of her original intention, being read along those lines.
No doubt there are many ways to approach this particular conversation and problem, but here’s the way I’ve been thinking about recently. It seems to me that Christians, like my friend Denny Burk, who criticize the whole behavior-orientation distinction—who say that both are equally sinful, equally fallen, broken, corrupt (pick your preferred negative adjective here)—and thereby deem the entire experience of “being gay” as in need of renunciation may not be considering carefully enough how what we, in modernity, have chosen to call a “homosexual orientation” (or “being gay”) includes much of what Scripture and the Christian tradition commend as Christian virtues. When we contemporary folks start talking about a sexual orientation as what causes us to form deep bonds of closeness with other members of our same sex, for example, quite apart from any genital sexual expression of that closeness, we are using an overarching category—“being gay” or “having same-sex attraction”—that Scripture and the tradition has other language for. Scripture commends friendship or spiritual siblinghood (think Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Jesus and Lazarus, Euodia and Syntyche, Paul and Timothy) as a way of speaking about especially close same-sex bonds. Scripture and the Christian tradition do not use the language of sexual orientation or, obviously, “being gay,” and so we’re left with the task of figuring out which parts of our experience and behavior that we put in those categories maps (or doesn’t map) onto Scripture’s way of categorizing reality.
We, for reasons that could be, by turns, highly useful and highly misleading and problematic, have chosen to speak of certain same-sex bonds under the label of “sexuality.” When I, for instance, form close friendships with men, I often attribute my original impulse to do so, and my continuing efforts to maintain those friendships, to my sexuality. (That paradigm seems to make sense of my experience: as I once said in an email to a friend, “A sexual orientation is such a complex and, in most cases, it seems, intractable thing; I for one cannot imagine what ‘healing’ from my orientation would look like, given that it seems to manifest itself not only in physical attraction to male bodies but also in a preference for male company, with all that it entails,” such as conversation and emotional intimacy.) But the point is that Scripture would use other language, other categories, for describing what I’m doing in forming chaste same-sex friendships, and it wouldn’t describe it in negative categories. On the contrary, Scripture celebrates same-sex love. Although it is keenly aware of a difference between what Aelred of Rievaulx would call carnal friendship and spiritual friendship, Scripture never says that we need to die to same-sex love.
So, notice a distinction here. Butterfield, Burk, and others seem to be saying that I need to die to, repent of, renounce, etc. every last aspect of “same-sex attraction” or “being gay,” and I think I agree with them almost entirely as long as we’re using their definitions of those terms. For them, I think, “same-sex attraction” or “being gay” or “homosexuality” is something that is defined by its culmination in same-sex genital expression. But many of us (though perhaps not all?) here at Spiritual Friendship are using the terms differently. We’re understanding “same-sex attraction” or “being gay” as broader, more inclusive categories that can’t be reduced to the behavior, or even the desire for, gay sex. Just as chaste chivalry, to take just one example, can be an expression of heterosexuality, so we’re suggesting that chaste friendship (or a number of other ways of expressing love) can be an expression of homosexuality. Having gay sex is one way of being gay, but, if we’re taking our cues from the Christian tradition, it need not (must not) be the definitive way.
My main worry with some of the “renunciation” and “surrender” and “death to self” language that Christians use in relation to homosexuality is that, for most people, it will end up implying that we believe all aspects of “being gay” are sinful. This is a devastating burden for many same-sex attracted Christians to bear, since it then leaves them trying to parse, ever more minutely and obsessively, how much of their desires for friendship, intimacy, companionship, community, etc. are a result of their sexual orientation. Then, if they think that those desires are a result of their same-sex attraction, they’re left feeling that they must repent of things that, surely, God intends for blessing and good in their lives—and things that have a rich history of commendation and sanctification in the history of the Church.
(This is related, I think, to the reasons some of my Catholic friends balk at the language of “intrinsic disorder.” As Aaron Taylor puts it, “the claim that homosexual acts are disordered obviously entails the judgment that the inclination to those acts is disordered. However, this is usually heard as the Church calling the sexuality of gays and lesbians disordered in toto. Given that the Church teaches that sexuality ‘affects all aspects of the human person,’ it is almost impossible for the layman to distinguish this from the claim that the entire personalities of gay people are disordered.”)
So, yes to death and resurrection. Death to the old Adam, and new life in Jesus Christ. But let’s remember that much of what contemporary Christians would classify under the label “being gay” is part of what Scripture describes under the heading of that new, resurrection life in Christ.
This is more of a thinking-out-loud post than I sometimes write, and I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts in response.