Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Romance of Friendship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer - 1923

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – 1923

I am not a scholar of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have not read a book-length biography of the man. And my exposure to his writing is limited to Letters and Papers from Prison, the unabridged version (800 pages)!

With those prefatory remarks out of the way, let me say that I am intrigued by how two reviewers of a recent biography have responded to a claim about Bonhoeffer’s homosexual disposition. Charles Marsh, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, has authored, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My goal here is not to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Mr. Marsh’s claim, but to ask why we are making much ado about Bonhoeffer’s alleged sexuality, which may be some-thing or no-thing at all.

In Christianity Today, Timothy Larsen, a professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College, reflects on the quirky humanity of Bonhoeffer:

Marsh makes a convincing case that Bonhoeffer harbored feelings for [Eberhard] Bethge that extended beyond friendship. Those feelings were unrequited, and Bonhoeffer probably did not consciously acknowledge them. Still, Marsh notes, he was possessive and smothering in his attention. He created a joint bank account and sent Christmas cards signed, “Dietrich and Eberhard.”

This turns into a major, recurring theme in Strange Glory. It fascinated me at first, but I grew tired of Marsh directing the camera angle of every scene so as to rather heavy-handedly keep it in view. Particularly regrettable is his decision to describe this relationship using words from Emily Dickinson—”The heart wants what the heart wants”—given the association between the quotation and Woody Allen’s use of it to justify unsavory behavior.

Bonhoeffer, by contrast, was so sexually innocent that I would not assume Athanasius himself surpassed him in this regard. Any such possible desires for Bethge appear sublimated and regulated. Even Bonhoeffer’s physical relationship with his fiancée, Maria—whom Marsh says Bonhoeffer was “smitten” by—comprised only a solitary occasion when, as a prisoner, he kissed her on the cheek in the presence of the public prosecutor. In a late prison letter, Bonhoeffer observed that he had lived a full life even though he would die a virgin.

In The Wall Street Journal, Christian Wiman, a poet at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, writes about the complexity of human desire:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was gay.

Well, no, that’s not what Mr. Marsh says, not outright. What he says is that for a number of years Bonhoeffer and Bethge, who had been teacher and student, lived very much like a couple: sharing a bank account, giving gifts under both of their names, traveling together, sleeping by warm fires, and rapturously reading books and playing the piano madly at all hours. Their intimacy was that of lovers, not friends.

There is no question of consummation, nor even the suggestion that Bonhoeffer ever actively sought it. “Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Bethge had always strained toward the achievement of a romantic love,” writes Mr. Marsh, “one ever chaste but complete in its complex aspirations.”

But what about Bonhoeffer’s engagement, at the age of 36, to Maria von Wedemeyer, who was 20 years his junior and the first “girlfriend” he’d ever had? Mr. Marsh stresses not only that last fact but also the severe formality between them and their intellectual incompatibility (he had been her teacher—and flunked her!). Bonhoeffer made his proposal just two weeks after Bethge made his own (to Bonhoeffer’s 17-year-old niece) and, according to Mr. Marsh, “took it as a test of his own mettle—his capacity for entering into and sustaining a romance with a woman and thus keeping pace, as it were, with the man who was his soul mate.”

On one level, it’s hard for me to care about any of this. It is possible for a man to fall in love with another man and not be gay. It is possible for a woman to fall in love with another woman and not be a lesbian. Or perhaps in both instances the lovers do warrant the words but in some more elastic and empathetic versions than contemporary American culture—or at least conservative religious culture—seems inclined to allow. Human desire is a complex phenomenon. Just think how much more complex is the human desire for God, or God’s desire for what human love ought to look like.

Still, there’s another way of looking at this. Theology is not a discipline like science, sociology or even philosophy. You can’t draw some stark line between the life and work of the theologian, because in a very real sense the life is an active test of the work. When Martin Luther wrote, late in his life, that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and . . . must be accounted as filth,” and then went on to suggest that the only Christian thing to do to Jews might be to kill them, the comments not only anticipated and almost ordained the rise of Nazism but also seeped like sewage back through the rest of Luther’s truly beautiful work, which can now never have quite the same smell.

And Bonhoeffer? He “became a theologian because he was lonely,” wrote Bethge, who would have known best. That loneliness is woven into the early, Wordsworthian experiences with nature that Bonhoeffer claimed—in a letter from a Gestapo prison—”made me who I am.” It is evident in the conflicted way in which he approached divinity: the awful longing for an absent God, the hunger for the hot touch of an absolute Christ. And one sees it most acutely in the way he pursued an always deeper intimacy with Bethge, who clearly determined the limits of their relationship, finally declaring in a letter that he simply could not give Bonhoeffer the kind of companionship he wanted.

There will be blood among American evangelicals over Mr. Marsh’s claim. For some, it will be more damning to Bonhoeffer’s memory than any anti-Semitic aside that Martin Luther made half a millennium ago. I suspect that’s precisely why Mr. Marsh has written his book with such subtlety and circumspection: He didn’t want this story to be the story. He may be in for quite a shock.

As for myself, I feel both grateful for and pained by the revelation. Mr. Marsh’s evidence does seem compelling—though I think he may underestimate the feelings Bonhoeffer developed for his fiancée. I am grateful because the research casts a different, more introspective light on some of Bonhoeffer’s ideas and inclinations (his extreme need for a community that was bound together both physically and spiritually, for example). I am pained for the same reason: The discovery reveals the rift of emptiness, of unanswered longing, that ran right through Bonhoeffer and every word he wrote.

Mr. Wiman, no doubt, is right when he predicts “there will be blood among American evangelicals over Mr. Marsh’s claim.” If Bonhoeffer was gay or, more maddeningly to those who like binary opposites, bisexual, some evangelicals will plug their ears with beeswax because his theology is tainted with disordered desires. “Religionless Christianity,” they may (wrongly) aver, is an outgrowth of ambiguous and confused sexuality.

Such a response would be unfortunate and, frankly, stupid. As Mr. Wiman notes, we go on listening to Luther even though his anti-Judaism is inexcusable compared to the chaste longings of one man for another. Let me also wager this prediction: there will be cheers among American mainline Protestants over Mr. Marsh’s claim; they now have a saint in their own heterodox image. Of course the problem with such horn-tooting is that there is really nothing “heterodox” about Bonhoeffer. He subordinated eros to agape, which defines the orthodox approach to sexuality. Alternatively, we could say he ascended the scala amoris with a companion who deeply shared his vision of God. Either way, we are dealing with the highest form of friendship, one that should elicit our admiration rather than censure.

The affections of Bonhoeffer, whether for a man or woman or both, matter only for two reasons.

First, they reveal his humanity in all its messy glory. We are creatures marked by desires in conflict, and for this reason we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). Bonhoeffer, the man without a halo, becomes a relatable saint, much like the apostle Paul who says at the height of his spiritual maturity: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15).

Second, the affections of Bonhoeffer reveal the cultural fabric behind his theology. To live in late modernity is to experience what Mr. Wiman eloquently describes as “the awful longing for an absent God, the hunger for the hot touch of an absolute Christ.” We are all lonely, desperate for life together.

Did Bonhoeffer ache for a romantic friendship with Eberhard Bethge or for the romance of a friendship that unites body and spirit, emotion and intellect? This is a distinction with a difference, and it is lost upon us because we are no longer in touch with “the tradition of late-antique and early-medieval Johannine Christianity, in which intimacy and understanding go hand in hand,” according to Samuel Kimbriel’s new book, Friendship as Sacred Knowing: Overcoming Isolation

Bonhoeffer, it seems, was trying to overcome the habits of isolation that beset modern people. His intimate friendship with Bethge should be lauded because it reminds us “there is no knowing the good without friendship, and no knowing without friendship. To see the good is to become intimate friends with others,” as Catherine Pickstock says in her endorsement for the aforementioned book. A characteristic mistake of modernity is to assume that friends have taken the wrong turn when they look at each other, face to face, rather than ahead. Thanks to Dr. Freud, we have sexualized eros, as if every longing must be consummated in genital sex. Bonhoeffer and Bethge may show us a more excellent way, where the sexual element—if present—is transformed and transcended by a preoccupation with the mystery of God.

ChristopherBenson50aChristopher Benson lives in Dallas, teaches literature, worships at an Episcopal church, and writes for various publications. His eponymous blog is Bensonian.

39 thoughts on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Romance of Friendship

  1. Having read about Bonhoeffer and Bethge, and knowing what an informal monastery is like, I think the word “romance” here is out of place. Bonhoeffer wanted intimacy, and Bethge wasn’t quite comfortable with the level of intimacy he wanted. But I don’t see any intrinsic connection between romance and intimacy. Even “longing” — which could justly be applied to Bonhoeffer — doesn’t clearly connect to “romance”. I can long to be around my brothers, and I can long to be fully known by them. Nothing romantic there.

    To quote Wilde, “Those who see ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.”

    • I have found that people attach very different meanings to the word “romance.” C. S. Lewis comments on this in the afterword to The Pilgrim’s Regress. The distinction that you are trying to draw between “romance” and “longing” probably makes sense only in a context where the first thing you think of when you think of the word “romance” is a movie like Sleepless in Seattle. If you were more inclined to think of romantic poets like Wordsworth, you might be less inclined to “see ugly meanings” in an association between “romance” and “longing.”

      This may be a good reason to think that “romance” is a dangerous word to use in this context when addressing a modern audience. But it seems to me that the world of Bonhoeffer and Bethge has far more in common with the atmosphere of the 19th century Romantics than it has in common with the 20th century Hollywood romantic comedy. So it seems to me that, however much danger of miscommunication there may be in Christopher’s use of the term “romance,” your reading of the term may be too influenced by the very post-Freudian Hollywood culture which makes it difficult for modern readers to understand Bonhoeffer and Bethge’s friendship without sexualizing it.

    • Regarding “romance” and “longing,” see C. S. Lewis’s comment on how he intended to use the word “romance” in The Pilgrim’s Regress:

      The experience is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. Other desires are felt as pleasures only if satisfaction is expected in the near future: hunger is only pleasant while we know (or believe) that we are soon going to eat. But this desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world, by those who have once felt it. This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than any other wealth. And thus it comes about, that if the desire is long absent, it may itself be desired, and that new desiring becomes a new instance of the original desire, though the subject may not at once recognize the fact and thus cries out for his lost youth of soul at the very moment in which he is being rejuvenated. This sounds complicate, but it is simple when we live it. ‘Oh to feel as I did then!’ we cry; not noticing that even while we say the words the very feeling whose loss we lament is rising again in all its old bittersweetness. For this sweet Desire cuts across our ordinary distinctions betwween wanting and having. To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.

      Lewis sneers at “the vulgar sense in which a ‘romance’ means simply ‘a love affair’ (Peer and Film Star Romance),” and strongly dismisses any idea that we can equate “romance” with sexual desire:

      As for the sexual answer, that I suppose to be the most obviously false Florimel of all. On whatever plane you take it, it is not what we are looking for. Lust can be gratified. Another personality can become to us ‘our America, our New-found-land’. A happy marriage can be achieved. But what has any of the three, or any mixture of the threee, to do with that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kuhla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves?

      Note also that Lewis and Bonhoeffer are near contemporaries, both men with strong imaginative and poetic sides who were also leading Christian intellectuals. Again, this tells us little about confusions that may emerge in contemporary English usage. But it suggests that even in Bonhoeffer’s day (Lewis wrote his Afterword around the time of Bonhoeffer’s arrest) the sense that you take to be the meaning for romance was not the dominant sense for Christian intellectuals (though it might, by that time, have been the sense most common among the “vulgar” readers of tabloids that told you about the affairs of the rich and famous).

  2. Good point, Ron. But I wonder if your pre-Sleepless sense of the word “romance” still really exists in common English usage. I feel like the word “intimacy” expresses this experience better than “romance”, at least with the way the words are commonly used. (Though “intimacy” is increasingly being coopted by sexuality/genitality too, sadly).

    • I think the problem is cultural rather than linguistic. The culture makes less and less imaginative space for intense emotion that is not sexual/genital. This means that there are no good words for communicating the kind of intense emotion that was commonplace in 19th and early 20th century same-sex friendships that do not have sexual connotations in modern ears. And if you choose words that will not have sexual connotations, you lose the emotional intensity.

      It seems to me that one does what one can to deal with this kind of cultural poverty (and I tend to be cautious about using the term “romance” in its older senses for that reason). But I also think that sometimes the only way to deal with the blindness of contemporary culture is to say things that are provocative and then try to correct misunderstanding. Common English usage reflects the corrupt and impoverished outlook of contemporary English-speaking cultures. There are some important human experiences which can’t be spoken about using common meanings of English words because the culture has cut itself off not only from its Christian past, but also from the higher pagans who also contributed so much to it.

      When more people have heard of Paris Hilton than Cicero, and more people know the works of Eminem than Wordsworth, many of the highest and best things in human culture have been lost. There is no straightforward way to communicate high human truths to such coarsened minds.

  3. Well, this is a delight, to be sure! Not Marsh’s claim, mind you, but the conversation it has sparked – though the claim itself is rather interesting. Bonhoeffer and Lewis are my two favourite authors and theologians (yes, I know Lewis would shun the title), bar none. Their theologies represent something much deeper to me than the systematic theology of seminary or even the educational/exhortational theology of Sunday morning, something that, I think, Lewis would have called Joy. It’s a scratching on the surface of something very, very deep, something that cannot really be put into words. In my journey, my same-sex attraction is tied very strongly to this sense of Joy – a desiring for something Beyond, a realisation that, no matter how perfectly I understand God or my own psychology, I will never truly be satisfied. My sexuality, with its desire for forbidden fruit, is a reflection of that. Whether Bonhoeffer shared that or no, he clearly shared the deeper longing: Joy. Romance. Desire for a life together. Whatever you choose to call it.

    This, I think, is the greatest shame of modern heterosexual writers particularly evident in their writings on sex: They have no place for a longing which cannot be fulfilled. Their books have never communicated an appreciation for unquenchable desire or an understanding of a life that is wholly caught up in the Other, as Lewis’ and Bonhoeffer’s nearly always do.

    Plus I’m loving this linguistic discussion. Of course the use of “romance” and “romantic” is completely lost in modern society. I think back to watching those old Anne of Green Gables mini-series back when I was 8 years old and thinking how odd it was that Anne kept using the word to describe something that had nothing to do with Eros or even relationships..There’s a beauty in having a broader understanding of the word. But that only came through my engagement with the stories themselves as something more than entertainment and, later, my engagements with Lewis and other authors. To understand “romance” as strictly being, or even always comprising, a desire for genital relationship is to be caught in that 8-year-old world – a world that is almost entirely material and self-centred.

    I have often thought that we need some way of differentiating Eros from Venus – as Lewis did in The Four Loves. Then we could have the really important discussion on whether Eros himself, an Eros which does not spawn Venus, is appropriate or holy within same-sex relationships.

    • With respect to the type of Eros you’re discussing, Plato has a very interesting view of friendship, whereby two “lovers” in the course of their conversation (or “intercourse”, as he sometimes puts it) give birth to beauty and knowledge and the Forms. The key here, to me, is that the lover (though valued for himself) is a means to something much more valuable, for something Real which both lovers can both be swept up into.

      I think that all Eros — including marital lovemaking — that does not aim at creating or reaching something higher is shallow, if not obscene. This is why, in my view, sex must be open to life. But ALL our intimate communications should be open to life, open to mystery and transcendence. In this sense, Eros detached from Venus is possible for same-sex friends. (But I don’t think *this* is what most same-sex couples have in mind, when they become a couple; just as most married couples don’t think of forming a family as somehow constitutive of their love.)

      • What is the differentiation between Plato’s Eros and and Lewis’ Phileo? Lewis in-part defines the difference as such that Eros seeks to be alone with the Beloved whereas Friendship ever seeks to expand and grow because it is about something ELSE – something that they Friends may be swept up into.

        I agree with you on the utilitarian use of Eros (and even Venus) which is not open to Life.

        Philosophically, I would tend to argue that the physical sphere mirrors the spiritual sphere. God, in His graciousness, does not make random “thou shalt nots”. Everything He has declared “good” is so because it mirrors His Ultimate Reality that exists within the relationship of the Trinity. Everything that does not mirror that, He has declared evil.

        So here’s the question regarding Eros: Is the Scriptural/Christian mandate against same-sex sexual behaviour STRICTLY about what we can and cannot do with our bodies, or is it supposed to also be linked to deeper spiritual contacts between the sexes which ought also to be reflected in other relationships? In other words, is our existence as masculine or feminine beings, completely separate from our bodies, a spiritual reality with sociological implications (beyond even what is allowed or disallowed in sexual relationships), or is it a human construct about which God has designs on only the physical aspect? In other words, is the holy Eros shared between a man and a woman in a sacramental marriage uniquely different than any types of Eros shared between two persons of the same sex? And, if so, is same-sex Eros any different that simple, mature Friendship? Are we muddying the waters by using one word to broadly and one word to narrowly?

      • Daniel:

        “I think that all Eros — including marital lovemaking — that does not aim at creating or reaching something higher is shallow, if not obscene. This is why, in my view, sex must be open to life. ”

        Is joining as one spiritually and in love, to reaffirm your connection and your oath to a partner for life not reaching something higher in your eyes? I ask because even in the marriages between hetero folks, there are situations that remove the possibility or openness for life (and I don’t mean contraception). Sex after menopause, for example.

        I know there have been excuse makers who do their best to argue legalisms and semantics to try and make this somehow different from contraception and gay unions that join two together in love, but I think this is one of the biggest issues with that sort of strict view of sex as a sort of meat forge for making new people and nothing more.

        It is certainly one of the big things that keep me from really embracing that sort of view and one of the big issues the Church has lost a lot of cultural ground on.

      • Joshua,

        I don’t recall Lewis’s distinction, precisely, but I think Plato’s Eros probably glosses over the distinction Lewis is trying to make between friendship and eros. For one thing, Plato often uses the word “philia” as a synonym for “eros”. Also, in a number of Plato’s dialogues, at least, he seems to be thinking of eros as a merely visual/tactile thing, not a thing that involves conversation and non-sexual intimacy. Thus, the Symposium talks about the beloved as a beautiful thing that points the lover to other kinds of beauty. The Phaedrus has a much deeper notion of friendship, though. In the Phaedrus, wisdom can only be known through the continual conversation of the lover with the beloved – a relationship that is constantly sabotaged by the lover’s sexual desire for the beloved, which as seen as a perfectly normal and yet intensely problematic thing. (This passage, more than anywhere else in Plato, makes it feel like Plato was the first father of the “gay and chaste” movement. Anachronistic, but suggestive.)

        But in both the Symposium and the Phaedrus, the beloved is instrumental. Indeed, physical consummation is seen as “settling for second best”. The really good stuff is what happens when you refuse to settle, and the properly focused love affair involves a constant focus on what is absent (the Forms and wisdom – in essence, God) instead of what is present (the lover).

        Lewis’s understanding of friendship (philia), as expressed in the Four Loves, is certainly more casual than this. If, however, you read Lewis’s letters, you can see for yourself that his friendship with Arthur Greeves (who I believe was gay, by the way) was quite passionate and emotional, though not the sort of thing that one would ever be tempted to call (in the modern sense) “romantic”. Which makes me think, I should totally dig up some of the letters between them, and post about them on my blog.

        “In other words, is the holy Eros shared between a man and a woman in a sacramental marriage uniquely different than any types of Eros shared between two persons of the same sex? And, if so, is same-sex Eros any different that simple, mature Friendship?”

        Well, I don’t think it *is* uniquely different, but perhaps we should make it different. That is, I’m sure gay people experience the same range of emotions as opposite sex lovers. And the longing – the sense that “I want YOU” but at the same time that “nothing in the world can satisfy my longing” – this is the same in both cases. But there’s a fruit from it, in the opposite sex case: you end up doing the type of thing that creates life. In contrast, I don’t see anything *creative* about the types of things you end up doing if you settle for second-best in a same-sex relationship. (I am open to being shown something creative in these acts, but it’s just not evident to me.) The *desire* to have their love be fruitful is surely often present in the sexual actions of gay lovers, but the natural potentiality isn’t in the action.

        Returning to the question, though, I think that there’s probably any fundamental difference between a friendship between two gay men and two ordinary men. Friendship is friendship. Same-sex eros is either just this kind of friendship, or it is something it shouldn’t be. This does not mean, of course, that friendship need be lacking in passion or intensity – the Bible shows us examples of intense and passionate friendships between people of the same sex. But it does mean that, if you need your friend to be *attracted* to you, there’s likely something at least somewhat “off” about the friendship.

      • Nathaniel,

        I appreciate your question. I don’t want to be overly dogmatic here: I am open to learning that there is some natural fruit to homosexual sex. I just can’t see one. I certainly believe that there is a natural fruit to homosexual *relationships*, at least insofar as these relationships are genuinely friendships. But in this respect, homosexual friendships are no different from any other kind of friendship.

        Your point about the fruitlessness of sex among older people is interesting. But notice that, along with this fruitlessness comes a decrease in desire and potency. If a couple of 70 still considers the *sexual* aspect of lovemaking a central driving force of their lives, I find that worrying. It seems to suggest some sort of idolization of pleasure, in my mind. I cannot speak directly to the experience, since so far I am obstinately remaining under 70 years old, but I imagine older married sex as a process of intimacy and reminiscence — like playing an old tune, and trying to keep up with the steps you once danced.

        To my mind, your point places a whole lot of weight on the unitive aspect of lovemaking. And I *cannot* speak to this, because I have never had gay sex. I know there is significant pleasure involved, but I don’t consider pleasure (on its own) ever to be a reason for action. So the question comes: is it genuinely unitive? Does gay sex tend to bind souls together, to make people more generous, loving, good, and trustworthy?

        My take on this is twofold: (1) If gay sex were genuinely unitive, I don’t understand why promiscuity would be so common in the gay community. Genuinely unitive sex encourages monogamy; this is fundamental Christian teaching. (2) If gay sex were genuinely unitive, I don’t understand why God would have allowed the Christian Church to teach that it is evil for so long. I know of no other similar case where the Church taught something so wrong, for so long.

        Thus, my evidence points to gay sex not being unitive, and thus not having *intrinsic* fruit. As mentioned before, I admit that gay *relationships* can be fruitful.

    • Daniel

      I am not 70 so I will digress on that. That said, if you have had sex with a woman you love then you know what sex is like for gay people. The only component it misses is the life component. Beyond that I can’t conceive of much difference, really.

      I am going to respond to the next part with brackets of your quotes since you hit a lot of points in one paragraph, many of which I strongly disagree with.

      [(1) If gay sex were genuinely unitive, I don’t understand why promiscuity would be so common in the gay community. Genuinely unitive sex encourages monogamy; this is fundamental Christian teaching.]

      You have come to an erroneous conclusion on this point, I feel. The point you make here isn’t a reflection on the homosexuality itself, as there are many who are not promiscuous. I, for example, am not and have had little problem meeting others like me. I think there are three reason we see/saw such promiscuity in the seventies, eighties, nineties, and even these days (though less so) among gay men in particular:

      First, history shows that this is standard for any sort of Civil Rights victory (after the success of feminism, for example in the fifties and sixties, we saw the Free Love movement and Woodstock). It eventually tapers off.

      Second, it is the culture itself that has a big problem with this and gays are every bit a product of culture as you or your kids might be. Some fight it. Many don’t, unfortunately.

      Third, until recently we had few role models to base ourselves on and aspire to which created some degree of anarchy in gay culture. People need guidance. Without it, much of us revert to following the whims of the flesh. I consider much of the clique-ishness of gay culture to be caused by this very thing; people without structure will invent it for themselves (eg twink, straight acting, bears, and many many other small camps, just in the gay male side of it alone). That too, is changing. The older gay people I knew in the nineties tended to be in open relationships whereas I find the idea to be extremely unappealing, tending to be “old fashioned”, in a manner of speaking. I also tend to be attracted to men outside of my clique and know of others who are the same.

      [(2) If gay sex were genuinely unitive, I don’t understand why God would have allowed the Christian Church to teach that it is evil for so long. I know of no other similar case where the Church taught something so wrong, for so long.]

      God can’t stop human beings from doing anything. We have free will – this is fundemental to Christian teaching in both Catholicism and Protestant faiths (well, except for Calvinists, I guess). It might not be overt error in the lesson, merely an erroneous application in how it is understood. I personally tend to look at sex based off motivation rather than measuring it as an action without regard to motive.

      What the Church teaches, at it’s most basic, isn’t an error. I may not live under the auspices of the Church on this issue but if I parse the theology out I can see the wisdom in what is being taught. Fornication is using someone else for gratification without respect to their humanity or intrinsic value. That is the spirit behind the rule against contraception, as I understand it. Thus while I don’t consider homosexual sex disordered in and of itself I think the Church has spoken the truth here. It has just erred in the application.

      I consider their approach akin to a government banning pastries because its citizens are too fat without really explaining why it is banning them, just putting the focus on how bad pastries are. With this approach, many Catholics don’t seem to know why contraception is forbidden and are missing the heart of why that rule is even there – all they know is that it is against the rules. The wisdom is there, but the focus is wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time the Church has had a good idea but botched the execution of said idea at the public level (eg Reconciliation is a great idea rooted in Scripture and conscience but selling Indulgences is not).

      • Nathaniel,

        Like Joshua, I would love to be sitting on couches with some choice beverages having this conversation with you, and I think such a situation could dispel some misconceptions. But here we are.

        At any rate, I feel like – even if I am incorrect – I am approaching the issue sensibly, given my evidence. You’re right that the high incidence of promiscuity in the gay community doesn’t necessarily point to anything about the nature of gay sex. But I don’t think your explanations quite work. You’re right that (1) feminism caused promiscuity – but my take on this is just that there’s something rotten in (this kind of) feminism. And you can see that something is rotten in feminism by watching male/female relationships today. As for (2), the culture’s penchant for promiscuity doesn’t explain why gay people are more promiscuous. Your point about (3) lacking role models is surely a good point. But…

        Suppose I am advising a person about whether to go to a certain seminary. For years, the seminary has turned out priests with problematic morals, from a Christian standpoint. He points out to me, however, that changes are afoot, and he thinks he knows why things had been going wrong over the years. He may be right. But should I advise him to risk his future on this gamble?

        So I see the whole thing as a matter of risk assessment. I just don’t see other cases where a certain activity correlates with things like promiscuity, but it’s wise to engage in the activity anyway. If people like you, Nathaniel, prove that gay liberation leads to monogamy, I’ll stand up and take notice. But all I see the other fruits of the sexual revolution leading to so far are divorce, promiscuity, child abuse, and loneliness – oh, and things like teenagers cutting themselves.

        Moving on, you claim that the Church’s position on sexuality need not have been seriously wrong, even if homosexual activity is morally acceptable. You identify the core of the Church’s position as being that “using someone else for gratification without respect to their humanity or intrinsic value” is wrong.

        Now surely this is *part* of the Church’s position. But another part, to put it in John Paul II terms, is that “engaging someone sexually without respect to the nuptial meaning of his or her body” is wrong. To say that gay marriage is on par with male/female marriage is to say that two men’s bodies, or two women’s bodies, are designed for each other – that there is an intrinsic nuptial meaning to same-sex relationships, inscribed by God in the very way that male and female bodies are designed. That doesn’t seem right to me. In fact, this makes God seem cruel – since if God is supposed to have made two women for a nuptial one-flesh union, he certainly didn’t make their bodies in a way that would make this possible.

        In fact, the rules against contraception and the like are part of a much richer and denser fabric than a simple prohibition on using each other for pleasure. I agree with you 100% that most Catholics don’t understand that. I think the Church has largely failed in Catechesis and public relations, ever since the Sexual Revolution. But, if the Church allowed same-sex marriage, it would have to rewrite its sexual ethics pretty much completely. Many of the rules could remain, yes, but they would need new justifications – many of which would be ad hoc.

        I hope my comments aren’t harsh, in any way. I’m very pleased with your tone in this conversation, and I hope we are at the very least understanding each other’s way of thinking.

      • Well put on the issue of the Catholic Church (in particular) not being able to change her stance on homosexuality without changing her entire theology of the body and sex. And masculinity/femininity. And the Trinity – or at least how that doctrines informs our understandings of sexuality and sociology. This is not to say that all of these things are *correct* – some of them are speaking to things that are, as I’ve said, blank spots for me. But it isn’t as simple as the Pope saying that two members of the same sex may now enter a sacramental marriage and making a minor change to church practice. It just isn’t that easy.

      • [You’re right that (1) feminism caused promiscuity – but my take on this is just that there’s something rotten in (this kind of) feminism. And you can see that something is rotten in feminism by watching male/female relationships today.]

        You misunderstood my assertion here. Feminism causes no such thing. Human beings and the inherent selfishness of the flesh create promiscuity. If feminism made an error, it was in focusing on women without addressing men in terms of gender roles. Women freeing themselves of gender roles is all well and good, but if men remain embroiled in their own then the system is lopsided and imbalanced. The male gender role does not promote empathy in us, at least as it is laid out in Western Civilization. There has been some correction but very late in the game. That is where we see the problem with relationships today come from in my view, but I digress.

        [As for (2), the culture’s penchant for promiscuity doesn’t explain why gay people are more promiscuous.]

        Going back to my above response, men don’t carry any repercussions for sexual activity (nor do two women, though they are still cultured to act as if there were, even if gay, thus the less promiscuity there, I’d guess). The male gender sees sex as a commodity rather than as an experience, gay or straight. That is why prostitution exists. A culture that begins to corroborate a world view that poisonous will effect gay male coupling more than any other coupling as a result.

        [Suppose I am advising a … to risk his future on this gamble?]

        Only if he could provide evidence that things were, indeed, changing. Your comments and views of life in the homosexual community while misguided are not without merit. But there are changes. I have spoken to a few older gay men (some in the generation just before mine) and those like myself and my peers who are more monogamous are odd, by their standards. In fact, some of them can’t really understand any gay male interaction without somehow warping it to be something sexual. Case in point, here is a link to a blog from an older gay guy dated from 2011 talking about his view on the “epidemic of people seeking cuddling” in the younger gay community (nothing pornographic but there is some strong euphamistic language – still, it shouldn’t violate any of the rules to link to illustrate this specific point, hopefully:

        http://www.justinplussix.com/2011/06/is-cuddle-snuggling-new-gay-sex.html

        It is clear from the experience of Mr. Luke that I have lived in a very different world than he apparently did when it comes to gay culture. In much the same way as Feminists from the sixties evolved from the whole free love thing to what you see now (married and so on, with even many Catholic feminists who have balanced their feminism with the Church teachings). I think it would be a mistake to discount the first hand accounts of the community you are addressing and attempting to understand if your interest lies in understanding us.

        [I just don’t see other cases where a certain activity correlates with things like promiscuity, but it’s wise to engage in the activity anyway.]

        But it is a correlation without causality. Gay relationships vary as much as the gays who engage in those relationships. At one point, long term committed relationships were not even considered before a certain age, yet now the dating sites for gay folks (barring the hook up ones like Grindr) have no shortage of men in their twenties and thirties looking for someone more.

        [Now surely this is *part* of the Church’s position. But another part, to put it in John Paul II terms, is that “engaging someone sexually without respect to the nuptial meaning of his or her body” is wrong.]

        This portion of their teaching is born of Aristotle and not God. The more I read of it, the more certain I become of it’s error. The bible differentiates strongly between the spirit/soul and the flesh/heart. And to preclude misunderstanding “heart” was the brain in the Hebrew language as we understand it today, referring to where all reason, rationale, and motive is born as I understand it. To say that the physical body reflects the soul is to equate the Breath and Spirit of God (the soul) with mere “slime” and “dust” (the flesh, as per Genesis). Further, the truths revealed by our science seem to corroborate my doubts and solidify my views that this is error (the research that shows the brain architecture of gay men is more similar to straight women, for example, or the differences in the brain ranging from a man to a transgender woman born in a man’s body).

        The view that places the genitalia as an equal to God is a far lesser view of the richness of God or His creation than I could ever manage in my rebelliousness. As such, I reject this teaching as error and all other dogma, tradition, and moral teaching which has been or will be predicated upon it until such a time that it is proven to not be error by my lived reality, science, or proper apologetic.

      • Nathaniel,

        Again, I appreciate your sincerity and candor.

        “The male gender role does not promote empathy in us, at least as it is laid out in Western Civilization. There has been some correction but very late in the game. That is where we see the problem with relationships today come from in my view, but I digress.”

        I wonder. I mean, you’re right that this lack of empathy (and lack of relationship) is a serious problem. But the general outlines of the modern gender role of “manliness” was around long ago, even in Shakespeare’s day – even in Rome and Greece – but every culture I know of before 1900 or so had a very strong and vibrant current of deep and intimate (even physically intimate) relationships between men. I think this is a recipe that caused this, not a single ingredient. If you couple “manliness” with things like the industrial and technological revolution, the sexual revolution, and feminism, you get a world where intimate contact between men becomes either well nigh impossible or sexually charged.

        “Going back to my above response, men don’t carry any repercussions for sexual activity (nor do two women, though they are still cultured to act as if there were, even if gay, thus the less promiscuity there, I’d guess).”

        I’ve heard this point before, and I just don’t understand it. There are significant potential repercussions for sexual activity between two men (consider the likelihood of getting AIDS, which many/most promiscuous gay men have), and – in an era of birth control – no more repercussions in male/female relationships.

        “The male gender sees sex as a commodity rather than as an experience, gay or straight. That is why prostitution exists.”

        I would have thought prostitution exists because people wanted certain experiences.

        “Only if he could provide evidence that things were, indeed, changing. Your comments and views of life in the homosexual community while misguided are not without merit. But there are changes.”

        I’m sure there are. But the question is whether these changes are the norm or the exception. I’m willing to wait awhile, and see it proved that they are the norm – then I would, at the very least, not oppose things like gay marriage. But that’s not really what I expect to see. Either way, I don’t have anything against someone who tries a different way of living than I do. If my moral theories are right, they’ll have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. If their moral theories are right, I’ll have an opportunity to learn from mine.

        “I think it would be a mistake to discount the first hand accounts of the community you are addressing and attempting to understand if your interest lies in understanding us.”

        I’m not discounting them. And I’m not discounting the first-hand witness I have of men in (apparently) monogamous relationships. Nor am I discounting the evidence I’ve read in many history books and various historical records. Nor am I discounting the evidence of a person like W.H. Auden, a very decent and compassionate man who tried being married to another man, and concluded that homosexuality was essentially founded on the emotion of envy. I am very sincerely seeking the truth, and I won’t discount evidence, wherever I find it.

        “This portion of their teaching is born of Aristotle and not God. The more I read of it, the more certain I become of it’s error. The bible differentiates strongly between the spirit/soul and the flesh/heart.”

        So does Aristotle. He says that the soul is the “form” of the body. But the idea that the soul is somehow independent of the body is not Christian.

        “To say that the physical body reflects the soul is to equate the Breath and Spirit of God (the soul) with mere “slime” and “dust” (the flesh, as per Genesis).“

        I respect your opinion, but this sounds like Gnosticism. There is nothing dirty or grimy about the body – SIN is dirty and grimy. To say that we are made from dust is dignifying, since (to quote Joni Mitchell) the dust we are made of is stardust. We – body and soul — are made in the image of God.

        “The view that places the genitalia as an equal to God is a far lesser view of the richness of God or His creation than I could ever manage in my rebelliousness.”

        Of course, the image of God (in this case, the genitals) is not equal to God. But every part of every human body is made in the image of God. We cannot say that the genitals are beneath God, and thus God doesn’t care what we do with them. My body is oriented (carnally ordered) toward the gift of self – but another man’s body doesn’t know what to do with that gift. A woman’s body does know.

      • [I wonder. I mean … or sexually charged.]

        You make some good points. The lack of male touch and the ickiness of it seems very new. I don’t wonder if LGBT people being more and more known and more and more open over the past hundred years has been partially to blame (eg don’t hug a guy friend whose dad just died because you are worried it will make you look gay). Perhaps our liberation is indirectly responsibly for this misery. The sexuality of the culture is a ripple of the changes. Needed changes but hopefully the ripples are subsiding now. We will see. I think the best way to help everyone is to free people from said gender roles and then fall into them as you choose. Then we can have touch between men that is not sexual, healthier relationships with women, and everybody wins.

        [I’ve heard this point … male/female relationships.]

        Many of these are new repercussions and women can catch them much easier than men, for the most part still. Like as a woman isn’t very fair to be sure. Even if there are no STDs, a woman can get pregnant, get a tubal pregnancy, and die a miserable death while a man suffers nothing for it. That was more that I meant. Good points though. I should have clarified better.

        [I would have thought prostitution exists because people wanted certain experiences.]

        A once sided experience where they take sex from a woman who for reasons most often not her own or in her control is selling it. And even if they were her reasons, is taking dangerous risks to make money and deserves help, not another guy using her like a sex toy and discarding her.

        [I’m sure there are. … opportunity to learn from mine.]

        This is acceptable. I think you will find LGBT people will surprise you on this, though, more than you might expect.

        [I’m not discounting them. … evidence, wherever I find it.]

        So long as you are drawing the proper conclusions from the evidence, then that is quite alright with me. Our experiences will teach you that we are all just as varied as you hetero types with very little in way of differences. Some are envy driven, selfish, sex driven, yet some are loving and lifelong partnerships. Just avoid falling into the trap of applying the bad to us collectively.

        [So does Aristotle. He … body is not Christian.]

        Then how do you explain Last Judgement occurring before the full body Resurrection? How can a soul pass on to Purgatory in this life, for example, if the body and soul are inseparable?

        [I respect your opinion, … made in the image of God.]

        I guess the Gnostics didn’t get it all wrong then. I have cut open a cadaver in a classroom and smelled the contents of a GI bleed through the colon and I can tell you that the illusions and fantastical awe of the body fades rather quickly. Our souls are made in the image of God to be sure. Love, Justice, our Sense of Right and Wrong, our Creativity even.

        [Of course, the image of God (in this case, the genitals) is not equal to God. But every part of every human body is made in the image of God.]

        I disagree. I believe every aspect of our soul is made in the image of God while the flesh is a close facsimile drawn from dust and evolution from primates to form.

        [We cannot say that the genitals are beneath God, and thus God doesn’t care what we do with them.]

        We can say the first but you are right about the second. It isn’t the genitals that are important but the motivation in their use.

        [My body is oriented (carnally ordered) toward the gift of self]

        Your body is oriented towards the gift of life and producing offspring. I will admit that. But there is a difference between giving yourself in terms of genetic material and giving your heart and soul to a partner and receiving it in turn.

        [ – but another man’s body doesn’t know what to do with that gift. A woman’s body does know.]

        Maybe you are just not meeting the right guys?

        Sorry, I kid of course. Still, the gift of life bit is one part of it all in my view.

        Take care.

      • Oh? I hadn’t realized. My points may still stand but my apologies to him, for allusions made to him being heterosexual. It is easy to accidentally make assumptions when conversing online like this.

  4. Daniel P and Nathaniel –

    Good thoughts. I’m loving this discussion… Times like this when I wish to actually be gathered around a table with our beverages of choice and talking face-to-face. One of the big reasons why I tend to be a lurker rather than an active participant in online discussions.

    There are many points to consider in our conversation, and I don’t think I have them all figured out. I think it’s dangerous to say that gay sex (or any specific type of sex) is wrong insofar as it is not unitive: I know several (and know of many more) “healthy” gay relationships. Not as many as some sources might like us to believe, but they do exist. But, more to the point, I know many, many heterosexual relationships that aren’t unitive at all.

    In the end, I think a Christian standpoint has to say that union between the sex partners is, like pleasure, a side issue. Or, perhaps at best, part of what makes the sexual/marital relationship so beautiful, but certainly not all of it, and certainly not what cinches the moral propriety of it. Regardless, whether it is possible for unification to happen in a gay sexual relationship does not justify homosexual behaviour.

    Being open to Life is, I think again, another aspect that must be considered but does not automatically justify or condemn a sexual act. Is it legitimate for couples to have sex when they know they cannot conceive? I think even the Catholic Church says yes, as long as they are not actively closing off the possibility. Which, by the way, indicates that a description of Catholic Theology as seeing sex as only a “meat forge for making new people and nothing more” is inherently flawed. Catholics believe sex is about so much more than procreation: pleasure, union, sacrifice, etc., but they only argue that doors to procreation should not be willfully closed. That is miles away from the suggestion of sex as strictly a meat forge.

    That leads us ’round the mulberry bush again to trying to have a more solid definition of Eros, Venus, and Friendship and how those things play out differently among the various combinations of the sexes. I don’t think the later can be answered until we have a more solid understanding of masculinity and femininity – one which, though I see the need for such an understanding, do not currently have. Much of my understanding of how chaste Eros is or is not possible between members of the same-sex is based on foundations that I recognize have huge blank spots. Likewise, my understanding of how Friends who are of the opposite sex is also dependent on blank spots in my understanding.

    One of the foundations for my theology against gay sex is that it fails to be a reflection of the Triune God in the way that is possible, but not always present, in heterosexual sex. I am not sure of how far this goes to answer our questions, but it gives me a place to continue my own contemplation.

    On Lewis’ relationship with Arthur Greeves: Yes, please do post something about those letters (and let me know when you do). Much as I love Lewis, I am actually woefully ignorant of his relationship with Mr Greeves. I do find Lewis to be ones of those types of souls I wish we had more of in Christianity: who takes it for granted that homosexual behaviour is disordered but that the homosexual person suffers the same basic issues that he suffered (I need to re-read where he wrote about homosexuality).

    • [ Is it legitimate for couples to have sex when they know they cannot conceive? I think even the Catholic Church says yes, as long as they are not actively closing off the possibility.]

      This strikes me as a legalism that dwells well outside of the spirit of the rule. If you were an Irish Catholic on a turnip farm in the 1700’s with roughly the same understanding of the human body as the mule who pulled your plow then, sure, you can claim you are “open to life” if having post menopausal sex. But we are well past the point of invincible ignorance now in the age of hormone replacement therapy and osteoporosis prevention and this eye rolling “Hey, I am open to life. I mean, God gave Sarah a child when Abraham asked so maybe God will give my sixty year old wife a child despite the fact that I know with absolute scientific certainty that she has run out. I am not closing the doors to life!” said with the same tenor as someone might utter the phrase “Hey, maybe God will send me a Swedish super model to marry.” is patently absurd and blatantly disingenuous. It is straw clutching, pure and simple. We may never agree on the theology but can we at least admit that much?

      [Much of my understanding of how chaste Eros is or is not possible between members of the same-sex is based on foundations that I recognize have huge blank spots.]

      Thank you for actually admitting that. It is a refreshing change of pace from talking to people who are certain I will be sharing a campfire with Pol Pot because I fell in love with another man. I don’t know either, beyond my own experience, nor does anyone else, I suppose.

      • Nathaniel –

        As I mentioned, I think this type of conversation is best suited to table-talk rather than net-talk. It’s far too easy to misunderstand one another, especially since we don’t actually know each other. I’m not sure of your whole story nor of what interactions you have had with those who hold a different perspective from yours. You have clearly been hurt, and possibly even harmed, by some things said, and I’m terribly sorry for that. I have no idea whether the hurt was unprofitable harm or simply the byproduct of the surgery we are all (and I here mean all of mankind) going through as God’s attempts to extract all of the cancerous sin we have twined about inside. Regardless, I’m sorry for your hurt – I know exactly how it feels and, whether it’s true harm or helpful hurt, it hurts the same.

        I think you have some good points, especially regarding the cultural impact of the gay-rights movements in the 60s, 70s, and 80s related to the issue of homosexual promiscuity. Much of the propaganda toward homosexuality, as you say, suffers from too much begging the question.

        That said, you may disagree with the Church’s (and here I mean historic Christianity, not just the Roman Catholic) view on various issues, but I think your rhetoric is a tad strong.

        To be honest, I understand Catholic theology very well on the point of contraception (and homosexuality), and it is extremely intellectual and well-reasoned; it has been thought through and honed by men of far greater intellect than either of us throughout 2000 years. Regardless of whether it is true or false, it deserves a bit more respect that what you’re giving.

        Do I agree with it all? I have to say that I do sympathize with it, but I’m not yet sure if I’m quite there in all regards. Nevertheless, there is no legalism or grasping at straws in pointing out the psychological differences between a couple who willfully and consciously closes the door on fertility through artificial means (especially when they regularly enact their choice through a daily pill or other means) and another couple who, having celebrated each others’ fertility in younger days, now engage in sex without thought to fertility simply because the wife is past her child-bearing years. The one couple is very much thinking about fertility, and saying no. The other is simply free to not think about it. You (and possibly I) may not agree that such a differentiation equates immorality, but it is clearly different.

        Being a student of psychology, I tend to believe that the gravest sins are just those which are psychological in nature. So it is that, while I’m not yet sure if contraception is actually always a sin, I do think it has the psychological element (missing in post-menopausal sex) to warrant at least a discussion of it. Whether you agree on the importance of the difference, there is a fundamental difference between the two – there is consistency and logic to the system. Again, it is far from “disingenuous” and “absurd”.

        That said, I think if, as in your example, a couple is merely waiting for menopause to unleash unfettered lust with an insincere “we’re open to life” tacked on, it would be very, very sinful. The Catholic Church does not conclude that sex (or anything) done in a certain way is always holy, but she does caution that doing things in other specific ways can always be unholy. That is a very important distinction, one which I don’t think you’re allowing for in your rush to set it aside as “outdated” or “unscientific”.

        But here we’re brushing against another, much bigger issue: hypocrisy in the church. From what I can gather in the few posts we’ve shared together, much of what you’re reacting to is the sort of double standards that exist in various Christian subcultures which say that holiness is demanded more highly from one group of individuals than another. With contraception, you see the dangers in not warning post-menopausal couples of the dangers of unfettered lust in the same way the Church has historically done those who may be tempted to use contraception as a means to allow for lust. Likewise, I think you are reacting against those who would declare your Eros for a man somehow immoral simply because it includes an element of Venus while heterosexuals can Eros whomever they want with little care for the implications – sometimes even blaming the object of their lust. A gay man who lusts after another man is just vile; a straight man who lusts after a woman is only doing what comes natural to him. This is clearly wrong. I think one of the things we Christians who experience SSA bring to the Church is our ability to point out the hypocrisy. We may disagree on how to best resolve the hypocrisy (whether through becoming more lenient with everyone or demanding more holiness from everyone), but we can definitely agree that there is a lot of unnecessary harm caused by it.

        All the best.

      • Reading back I can see that my response came across as an attack on you. While we may not agree, I do apologize for that. That was not my intention to seem as if I was insulting you or questioning your honesty/intelligence. It was more a general statement, but I personalized it inappropriately in the vernacular. I am sorry about that.

        It is somewhat personal. I grew up in the Church and have always considered myself loyal to the teachings and amiable to the idea. Many of my memories of my teen years are of my Life Teen group and two of my childhood friends went on to become priests, even. I always had strong doubts about certain things (eg eternal hell, for example, has always felt very man made to me). Still, I deferred to the Church, assuming that it had the backing of apologetic and Scripture behind it.

        When I began reading into my faith, I began to find that the apologetic and framework for much of it was built on Greek philosophy. The Aristotelian monism upon which Theology of the Body rests, for example (to keep it topical) but also others. A foundation cobbled together by mere men. I had assumed that the case would be air tight, protected by the Holy Spirit, yet the more I have researched and the more I have read, the more angry I have become. I felt betrayed. I still do.

        Again, sometimes it bleeds through into my own rhetoric so I will reaffirm my apologize here for seeming to lash out at you. I have no personal qualms with you, Mr M.

        I will now respond to the counter-points.

        There is a truth hidden within the Church teaching on Sexuality that I believe is transcendental of what is discussed back and forth here. Something other protestant sects have not approached (at least the more popular ones I have seen). It is your claim that it deserves more respect than what I am willing to give it but I would respond by saying that the truth that lays at the heart of this teaching deserves more respect than your Church is giving it. I don’t want to do away with the Sexual Ethics of the Church, Quite the contrary, actually.

        Your comment about psychology I agree with but your suspicions on what drives my argument here are incorrect. I agree that the mind and the will is where the sin lies and, at it’s barest truths, so to does the Church ethic on Sexuality confirm this. I understand why the focus on the human fabrication aspect was important. I too have studied Church history and know that, in it’s earliest days, the Church was tied to the governments of old.

        To birth soldiers (hell, to birth anyone), we need heterosexual unions. The understanding of sexuality, emotional connections, and such back then was rudimentary if it existed at all and the fear of a great warrior “catching the gay” and not procreating to make more great soldiers was a big deal. There were much smarter men than you or I long ago talking this out but it is error to assume they had more wisdom than you or I. The benefit of having the Internet and the clarity of hindsight grants us understanding they couldn’t have fathomed. Each of the laws of Leviticus reflects the laws of a nation surrounded on all sides by it’s foes. A nation that could not support or condone weakness if it wanted to survive. Homosexuality was once seen as a choice, a moral failing, a weakness, but don’t the people here who blog and write counteract that thesis by their very existence?

        My motivations are not the petulant complaining of how unfair it is. My mewling of post menopausal loopholes was designed to illustrate the problem with the view that makes the physical biological sex a reflection of what lies within the soul. Carried to it’s most logically conclusive absurdity, this would mean that any defect expressed in the body is an outward reflection of the soul. This view is misguided, at best, and blatant blasphemy and idolatry of the biological at worst (in direct defiance of Scripture). The heart of Sexual Ethics is worth preserving. With so many ready to throw it out along with all the bad tradition, I worry that if this ethic isn’t elevated above the profane and sandy foundation it currently sits upon then we may find ourselves in a world possessed by the same selfish, worldly drive that places gratification of the one above the good of the many. Seeing a world elevated above mere flesh is worth a few charged words here and there at the least and worth staking my soul on at the most.

        If I was here to find loopholes or merely to reject the whole cloth of the teaching, I’d have left after the first few comments long ago. I have no delusions of grandeur, but the core of the teaching is worth fighting for – even if it means fighting the Church that this truth originated from.

      • Nathaniel –

        Thank you for your apology. I can understand the deep emotion you have attached to this issue, and particular the Catholic Church’s teaching on this issue, based on what you told me about your upbringing and your later disenchantment with the Catholic Church. I would still encourage you to find a place for respecting positions you do not agree with – even those we find damaging must be respected on some degree if we hope to have any non-violent intercourse with those who hold them. I have found that, when I do not respect a position, I either do not understand it or I truly hold a low personal view of those who hold the view in question. This may not be the case, but I think it probably is, which is bubbling out in that strong rhetoric even in the same post in which you apologised. Respect does not equate agreement.

        And just for the record, I’m not Catholic. Though I have concerns about the ways in which you’ve chosen to express them, I sympathise with many of the critiques you made of the Church in your last post, but my concerns are related to other issues and not primarily on the sexual ethic.

        However, for me, those critiques which we seem to share of Roman Catholicism are wholly invalid on this point. It is not just the Roman Catholic Church which has held her current views on sexuality, but indeed practically all of Christendom dating back before the marriage of Church and State through 1930. Your concerns with Theology of the Body being too connected with Aristotelian philosophy are valid, but I’m afraid they do not explain the various (and united) Eastern Orthodox opposition to same-sex behaviour or (until the 1970s) contraception. Nor do they explain why every Protestant Church, and even the various radical Anabaptist movements, kept these particular teachings until 1930 (or later) even while practically EVERY other doctrine except those related to the Trinity was put on trial and thrown away by some Protestant sect or another. Nor do they explain why the current questioning and flexibility on sexual issues within Protestantism has only happened after the various Protestant churches (foremost including my own) began making room for unorthodox views on the Trinity, something which has only been allowed since the late 1800s.

        It rather makes me suspect that the historic Christian views on sexuality have much more to do with the historic teaching on the Trinity than they do with Aristotelian philosophy, though the Catholic Church has certainly attempted to explain the ethic through the language of Aristotelian philosophy.

        Secondly, the view that the Church’s views on sexuality were connected with a historic need for soldiers fails to consider some very rudimentary issues that immediately collapse the idea:

        1) A wildly popular perspective in Greek culture, which was still very dominant in the time of the Early Church, held that sex among soldiers helped them bond and increased an army’s effectiveness. Since this was the view held by Alexander the Great (the leader of one of the most effective militaries of the time), it would have been hard to disprove.

        2) Polygamy is by far a quicker way to allow for mushrooming the amount of soldiers ready for service (and who may die without hurting a nation’s population). Since this practice is NOT specifically denied in either Judaism or in Christian Scriptures, it would have been a MUCH more effective way of gaining military strength than demanding monogamous life-long relationships, yet it has historically been treated the same as same-sex relationships or contraception.

        3) The Church’s approval of and encouragement of monastic and celibate lifestyles is completely contradictory to the roots of the Christian sexual ethic you propose. Why encourage one family to have 12 children and 7 of those children to not reproduce at all if the goal is a stronger military?

        4) As Daniel pointed out, the ancient world’s view of “gay” was completely incompatible with our own – no one feared “catching the gay” because it was expected, in some Greek provinces, that all rich men would be engaged in both homosexual relationships and a heterosexual marriage. Even into the 1800s we can see that most of Western Civilization thought of homosexuality as an *addition* to heterosexuality, not a replacement for it.

        I would also like to respond to a few of your quotes directly:

        “There were much smarter men than you or I long ago talking this out but it is error to assume they had more wisdom than you or I.” – Actually, you’re making the inverse error: concluding that, because we have more knowledge, we are more wise. I readily accept that I can easily access information that St. Paul (for example) couldn’t… that doesn’t negate my respect for his wisdom or suggest that I can propose a better understanding of the Old Testament than he did. Some things, and philosophy and theology I believe are two of those things, cannot be understood through mere knowledge.

        “The benefit of having the Internet and the clarity of hindsight grants us understanding they couldn’t have fathomed.” No, it grants us knowledge that they had no access to, but we must not confuse knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. It also gives us access to a lot of misinformation, shoddy philosophy, and historical revisionism. The key to understanding this topic (or any philosophical discussion) can never be found in knowledge alone. Wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit are, perhaps, more important.

        “Each of the laws of Leviticus reflects the laws of a nation surrounded on all sides by it’s foes.” – While I’m not sure I disagree with this, I also think they reflect the nature of Yahweh and the Triune God. I’m concerned about how unjust this makes God if He prescribed the death penalty for something that was, in the end, not any more immoral than eating shrimp or pork (something that was forbidden due to health concerns of the community bu which never earned the death penalty).

        “A nation that could not support or condone weakness if it wanted to survive.” – This, again, runs counter to most of the teaching of the Old Testament. In light of the cultures around them, Jewish culture was particularly soft and idealistic about the weak. No more could women simply be killed or cast out with no legal recourse. No more could infants be murdered or sold. No more could the poor be ignored or enslaved without justice. No more could foreigners be shunned, raped, or murdered. No more could the diseased be brutally dispatched “for the good of the community”. The Torah and all of the Prophets sets up laws that are completely contradictory to the logic you are giving it’s prohibition of homosexuality.

        “Homosexuality was once seen as a choice, a moral failing, a weakness, but don’t the people here who blog and write counteract that thesis by their very existence?” – Well, no, actually. You are making a switch-a-roo with the term ‘homosexuality’. In the Torah, and in all of Christian history, same-sex sexual *contact* is seen as a choice, a moral failing, and a weakness. Something that Spiritual Friendship, I believe, would agree with. But nowhere does the Torah or Christian history say that same-sex attraction are any of those things, and this is the differentiation that Spiritual Friendship holds, in my understanding.

        “My motivations are not the petulant complaining of how unfair it is.” – I don’t see valid critiquing of hypocrisy as “petulant complaining”. I think that’s an idea that absolutely must go if you hope to be of use to anyone in the Church, regardless of the ultimate answer on sexual ethics.

        “My mewling of post menopausal loopholes was designed to illustrate the problem with the view that makes the physical biological sex a reflection of what lies within the soul. Carried to it’s most logically conclusive absurdity, this would mean that any defect expressed in the body is an outward reflection of the soul. This view is misguided, at best, and blatant blasphemy and idolatry of the biological at worst (in direct defiance of Scripture)” – Are you saying that seeing gender as a reflection of the soul is a mistake because seeing physical handicaps as reflective of spiritual handicaps is also a mistake? First, I’m confused what this has to do with menopause. Second, Judaism and Christianity DO see handicaps and biological defects as reflective of the human soul, though I’ll grant that they are not necessarily reflections of the soul that is embodied therein but, more commonly, of the human soul in general. Nevertheless, Christians and Scripture DO affirm that the physical always has a spiritual reflection, even if it is in someone else. Third, your forced conclusion is not a fair logical conclusion since we (hopeful) perceive of both men and women in full, ideal health, living as they should be in all of their beautiful difference. Physical defects, on the other hand, are understood as defects and would gloriously be removed in an ideal world. The blind will be made to see, the lame will be made to walk, but, contrary to the Gnostic gospels, women will not be turned into men nor vice versa. Lewis once noted that a sword once wielded in victory is never cast aside but merely sheathed. So, too, gender will not be necessary in Heaven, but the reality of our masculinity and femininity will be glorified. Again, you may not AGREE, but that does not mean it ends in the absurdity you have artificially taken it to. The fact that no one actually believes the supposed absurd conclusions of an idea should hint that we have, possibly, misunderstood the logic and theology behind it and are being too quick to pass judgement on something that is more complicated than we want to give credence to. But I digress, as this is how I opened this comment.

        In addition, the argument you are here outlining does great violence to transgendered and transsexual persons. Their whole identity is premised on the belief that their physical bodies are inconsistent with their souls, something the gay and feminist communities have long since been uncomfortable with because it indicates that there actually *is* a distinct engendered soul under our body.

        “The heart of Sexual Ethics is worth preserving. With so many ready to throw it out along with all the bad tradition, I worry that if this ethic isn’t elevated above the profane and sandy foundation it currently sits upon then we may find ourselves in a world possessed by the same selfish, worldly drive that places gratification of the one above the good of the many.” So what exactly IS the heart of Sexual Ethics, as you understand them?

        “To say that the physical body reflects the soul is to equate the Breath and Spirit of God (the soul) with mere “slime” and “dust” (the flesh, as per Genesis)” – I, also, am concerned about the Gnostic undertones of this idea. Not only does this devalue the human body (something which Christianity has always argued to be holy and sacred), but I’m concerned about it’s implications on one’s understanding of the Incarnation. I’d be interested in your views on Christ’s incarnation, the Sacrament, and our own bodily future.

        “The view that places the genitalia as an equal to God is a far lesser view of the richness of God or His creation than I could ever manage in my rebelliousness.” – Oh dear. Does any Christian actually place the genitalia as an equal to God? I would think this only existed in some extreme forms of paganism. I, at least, have never heard such an extreme view described, and especially not in my reading of Catholic sexual ethics.

        “As such, I reject this teaching as error and all other dogma, tradition and moral teaching which has been or will be predicated upon it ” – As all orthodox believers ought! But since you seem to be indicating that this is thus your reason for rejecting the historical Christian sexual ethic, I’m not entirely sure you’ve quite got the right foundations identified for them.

        All the best,

        Joshua

      • Nathaniel,

        A quibble about your comment about history: in the ancient world, there was very little expectation that a person who had homosexual encounters would not have children. The assumption in Greece and Rome, for example, was that a man could both have same-sex sexual relationships, and get married and have children. Few people thought that a man who had sex with other men was unlikely to have sex with women.

        The Hebrew objection to same-sex sexuality was not unusual in the ancient world. Even Greeks said that homosexual sex was “against nature”.

      • Joshua,

        I will try to soften my rhetoric a bit. The love the sinner hate the sin type approach is infuriating when used against me so I am not sure why I seem to have taken that approach here. Even if I do think you are in error, that sort of rhetoric has a condescending tone to it. Hence why it never works or contributes to a conversation. Sorry about that.

        [However, for me, those critiques … Protestant sect or another.]

        You maybe right. That said, none of these Churches were born in a vacuum. Each is a product of a society that saw women as incubators under the control of men. This is a common thread through all of Middle Eastern society where these faiths were born. The poison of the soil corrupts the wood of the tree. It may not erase the truth therein but it most certainly corrupts. You can see it today in the region. Misogyny and homophobia have always gone together.

        While homosexuality may have been practiced in Rome and Greece, from all I have read it was in the same way straight guys rape each other in prison to show dominance. You will be hard pressed to find examples of what we understand homosexuality today to be in the healthy contexts of love and such.Rape and violence have always been inherent to the male gender role as the West has manufactured it. Sex for men can be a means of showing dominance over another.

        [Nor do they explain … allowed since the late 1800s.]

        In the 1930’s, we were seeing the beginning of a move towards egalitarianism with women voting and gaining more rights. Women are more empathetic than men, naturally, thanks to brain wiring. They have been the vanguard for such movements, in my view (Civil Rights and so on). And this has spread into the Churches.

        Homosexuality as it was practiced was a far cry different from how it is practiced now. That said, your response about the making soldiers is correct so I will retract that statement.

        [Actually, you’re making the … understood through mere knowledge.]

        I agree. However, when I hear or read things accepted as ancient wisdom that contradict reality as I experience it or the evidence as I understand it I am much more likely to side with the evidence and my own intuition over tradition.

        [Wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit are, perhaps, more important.]

        I would agree. That said, I tend to feel that I have been guided to where I am in my understanding by God and the Holy Spirit and, I imagine, you feel you have been guided to your understanding the same way. Since our views run contrary to each other this means that one of us is mistaken.

        [While I’m not sure … earned the death penalty).]

        The way I have resolved this issue with the seeming pettiness of God is to accept that Leviticus was written by human beings, not God. Doing this, I am able to read it without the onus of trying to make excuses for God prescribing death for seemingly arbitrary transgressions like some omnicidal tyrant. Much of the Old Testament is mythological in my eyes. Myth that might hold grains of truth, history of a people, and so on but not historical and certainly not inspired in their entirety.

        [This, again, runs counter … it’s prohibition of homosexuality.]

        We know very little about the pagans surrounding them beyond what the OT tells us and we have to remember that this text was written by the victors – victors who spend a portion of that text going on about slaughtering women and children, among other things.

        [Well, no, actually. You … holds, in my understanding.]

        You are correct. The ancient world saw sex as commodity and mark of dominance. I allowed my modern view to creep in. I retract what I stated.

        [I don’t see valid … answer on sexual ethics.]

        You make a good point. Hypocrisy should be fought where it shows up as it can poison people against good and turn them towards evil if left unchecked. I will consider this in the future.

        [Are you saying that seeing … engendered soul under our body.]

        I am saying that viewing the body as if it has mastery over the form of the soul as Former Pope Benedict did in his 2012 Christmas address (where he intimated that transgender people were choosing to go against their God given nature as determined by their body) with the full support of Theology of the Body is error because it would necessitate viewing deformities of the body as deformities of the soul (eg if being born with a penis means your soul is masculine then being born blind means your soul is also blind).

        I do believe in an inherent gender component but I have met men with more feminine spirits and women with more masculine ones. Rather than force them to abide the tyranny of the flesh (which we know for a fact can be deformed and fail), I defer to their spirit (which we don’t know much about at all, beyond what we feel and what we cobble together from theology). Given the evidence, I can’t in good conscience agree with the Church and rule against the soul in favor of the flesh.

        [So what exactly IS the heart of Sexual Ethics, as you understand them?]

        The simple answer is loving your neighbor as yourself as it applies to sex. While many rationalize this with empty legalism and excuses, the conscience convicts the guilty.

        Don’t use people for sex, don’t use them to incubate children for you if you don’t love them. Don’t use them even if they seem like they want to be used, because you wouldn’t want that for you or your loved ones. Don’t do to a woman what you wouldn’t want done to your daughter. These are the hetero sides of it but they apply equally to my side as well. I have actively turned down sex with men who really wanted it from me because I got to know the men enough to realize they were using sex as a way of self harming, complicating the relationship to avoid intimacy, and all manner of other reasons.

        The first man I ever fell in love with had his first sexual experience with a man three times his age who was only interested in him because he tends to dress in a more feminine way and, when the guy finished, walked out without saying a word. If I was a dad and my son had been invisible in high school and had internalized his own effeminate nature as “weird” and “unlikable” enough that he wound up going out in women’s clothing at age eighteen looking to be used so he could temporarily feel acceptable I would be upset. I could go on but you don’t need me to tell you – your conscience already knows what to do and what not to do. To me it really is baffling that we have to have conversations like this and agonize over something that strikes me as simple but it seems many can’t differentiate their conscience from their rationalizations.

        [I’d be interested in your views on Christ’s incarnation, the Sacrament, and our own bodily future.]

        I have no problem viewing flesh as separate from the soul yet important for expressing it’s will in the realm of matter. As for Christ, I can easily accept him as God in the flesh, similar to us without harming the Scripture at all (we was God and Flesh, Human by merit of his experiences). Transubstantiation also doesn’t seem to me to require a monistic view of body and soul to function. As for the bodily future, I don’t really believe in a physical Resurrection since it seems that this would mean that those who died to long before this resurrection would cease to exist, having rotted away to dust. And if God could just remake them from said dust, what is the value of the physical form beyond a means for the soul to move around? How valuable can something that turns to rotting muck really be?

        I don’t lack empathy for your position or those of most people who consider this Gnostic. Change is scary to humans so the thought of being without our body or changing when we pass on is scary. I remember the guy who asks Jesus if a wife had a bunch of husbands then who would get her in heaven and Jesus explaining that there was no marriage like that in heaven. I like this response because it means that this is nothing to fear. As scary as it is, being stripped of the profanity of flesh and sexuality is not so bad. I think it would give us access to greater love and greater closeness with each other.

        [Oh dear. Does any Christian actually place the genitalia as an equal to God? I would think this only existed in some extreme forms of paganism. I, at least, have never heard such an extreme view described, and especially not in my reading of Catholic sexual ethics.]

        I will refer to my clarification using the 2012 Christmas speech and ToB above to answer this. I have tried to explain myself better without referring to grave rhetoric this time so as not to create discord. Hopefully this will come across better.

        Take care.

  5. I would point to this post by Gabriel Blanchard:

    http://mudbloodcatholic.blogspot.com/2014/06/a-question-i-have-no-good-answer-to.html

    The lack of genital/reproductive complementarity is only a symptom of the problem. Two masculine or two feminine souls do not fit together in the right way for a sexual relationship to be right. Period.

    It is a binary. There is no male-female spectrum. Trangenderism and interesex conditions do not exist as ontological categories. They are distortions caused by the fall.

    This would be the only way to explain catholic (and many protestant denominations) teachings on female clergy. It cannot be because of anatomy.

    As far as the issues of ancient knowledge of homosexuality, I believe Jesus and Paul had plenty. They understood that some have lifelong predominant or exclusive same-sex attraction and that it could perhaps be inborn. Along with the promiscuity in the ancient world, there were plenty of loving, committed homosexual relationships among men, and even more among women.

    Plus, we must remember that the scriptures are not simply the personal opinions of the writers. No reasonable god would have allowed it to be written the way it was if he intended homosexuality to be equal. There would be positive words about it somewhere.

    Unfortunately, tension and judgment are unavoidable here. The precise reason I and many others are here is because we believe it is impossible to be a faithful Christian and be in a homosexual relationship. Many of us would seek such relationships ourselves if we thought such were permissible.

    I have gotten to the point that I simply do not care if my views are offensive to sexually active gays. I cannot make my views emotionally appealing. I cannot come up with a way to make peace with them.

    • While I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion that your views must always be offensive to sexually active gays or that you cannot make your views emotionally appealing, and while I CERTAINLY disagree with your decision to not *care* about offending broken and needy people (“woe to those by whom offense must come”), I find the philosophical part of your post intriguing.

      This ontological difference between men and women is what I wish we could nail down a bit more. I’ve heard many explanations – many are begging the question, almost all are tied strongly too tightly to a specific cultural norm, and I often find myself on the “female” side of the descriptions. What is it about the male and female SOULS that results in the historic Church’s (here I mean all of historic Christianity, not just Roman Catholicism) teaching about church leadership and sexual ethics?

      I think if we were to be able to define this, we could then truly ask the question of whether Friendship is truly available to members of opposite sexes and whether chaste, non genital Eros is appropriate between members of the same sex.

    • PS: I just read that note over on Mudblood Catholic – a blog I’ve stumbled on once or twice before. It has gone to my top ten “Wish I Had Written This” list! Thanks SO much for posting!

  6. Hi Joshua,

    Would you be kind and explain to me why is wrong to use Aristotle to explain a church’s teaching? Or that the Church explains her teachings using Aristotle?

    Thanks

    • Rosa –

      I don’t think it’s wrong to use Aristotelian language to explain the Church’s teaching. I was just trying to point out that it is only ONE explanation of the historic Christian teaching – an explanation which Orthodox Christians and Anabaptist Christians (just to name 2) would have rejected. I think it is best understood as a descriptor of the theology, not the logic behind it. An argument explaining an object must not be confused with the object itself. We may explain the historic Christian teachings on sexual ethics using Aristotelian language, but we must not confuse that Aristotelian language as the reasons for the sexual ethic.

      And since I believe that the Aristotelian philosophy used is simply a language used to describe rather than the theology itself, I see certain unavoidable concerns in it. Some of Nathaniel’s concerns (though I grant that he is being a bit far-fetched in forcing them to places that the Church does not go) I think are valid. It does not mean we throw away the language, only that we become aware of the potential problems which may develop from it.

      It also means we may broaden the language by discussing the issue in context of other philosophies. I, for one, would love to hear a Post Modern defense of the Christian sexual ethic – something I believe is completely possible. I also suspect the the greatest argument for the Christian sexual ethic is somehow rooted in the historic doctrine of the Trinity.

      In other words, I don’t disapprove of the use of Aristotelian philosophy as a language for communicating the historic Christian sexual ethic; and I also see potential valid critiques of the practice if it is our sole source of understanding it.

      Hope that makes sense.

      -Joshua

      • One last question if you don’t mind… Did orthodox and anabaptist actually rejected the explanation?

        I’m very ignorant. I apologize.

        Thanks

      • I honestly don’t know the answer to that, being neither Orthodox (capitol O) nor Anabaptist. I should think that neither of them would spend much time refuting the explanation since they don’t disagree with the conclusions, but surely they based their conclusions on different methods. Does that make sense?

  7. Yes, except I would like to know what methods would they base their conclusion (the same as the catholic conclusion) on… Now I very curious… 😃

  8. Fine conversation, in which I look forward to further engagement.

    For the moment, getting back to Bonhoeffer’s sexuality: I’m concerned that Christian Wiman makes the “DB was gay” comment in his WSJ review (having read it on day of publication); it sets up the “naming game” (which can lead to the shaming game) that so often precludes real conversation about sexuality. I don’t want to believe Wiman intends this (knowing the quality of his work, editorship of Poetry Magazine, etc.) but I have to ask – and will ask him directly when I next see him!

    I’m searching for the term: “yearning” – as God yearned over creation in the beginning – and, as we all yearn for intimacy. That such yearning (desire, longing, etc.) is ever-sexualized has to do with our being “incarnate” beings. Yet, must it so predominate the experience as to terminate any meaning? Allusion to T.S. Eliot’s line in Little Gidding: “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”

    I suppose this is what the “real” conversation must finally be about – how do we sustain intimate relationships without succumbing to over-sexualizing them? Or, more positively, how do we appropriately hold the tension of sexuality – to be found in every relationship – giving it its due, while moving to a deeper intimacy of the heart?

  9. Pingback: One More Post on the “Gay” Bonhoeffer | Spiritual Friendship

  10. Pingback: Commonplace Holiness Blog

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