Thinking One More Time About “Identity” and “Behavior”

I’ve been following the #ERLC2014 hashtag on Twitter, which links me to updates on the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s 2014 conference on the theme of homosexuality.

Many of the folks tweeting have been voicing frustration, anger, and hurt over what’s being said at the conference. I haven’t been watching any of the livestream, but I imagine some of the frustration is warranted. But, then again, I also imagine much of the hostility to the conference has to do with dismay that the SBC still holds the view of marriage that I do—which is that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman and any sexual activity outside of that context is prohibited for Christians. In other words, I imagine many people’s frustration boils down to (a) incredulity that the SBC still holds this view and (b) fervent desire that it would change.

What I was asking myself today, though, was—once again—why the “traditional view of marriage” provokes so much anger in our culture. I can certainly imagine some legitimate reasons for it to do so, since the people expressing that view have often been hypocritical, upholding “traditional marriage” while also getting divorced at roughly the same rates as more “liberal” folk and behaving with shocking insensitivity toward LGBT people. (The latter is something I know from personal experience, having grown up in the SBC trying to keep my own same-sex desire secret.) But, even granting that, why is it that so many people in our culture, even friends of mine who might otherwise be very sympathetic with much of what the ERLC stands for, are so up in arms about Christianity’s traditional stance on gay sex?

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From the Outside to the Inside in Judaism and Christianity

Via David Mills, here’s something many of you may find provocative:

A respected Conservative clergyman, Gil Steinlauf, senior rabbi of Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation wrote his congregants a moving letter shortly after Yom Kippur. In it, he announced that he and his wife of 20 years, Batya, would be divorcing. That alone would have been surprise enough for his congregation, considering the model marriage, complete with three children, that he and his wife (also a Conservative rabbi and the head of an office of the local Jewish Community Relations Council) had forged. The Steinlaufs’ union had earned the respect and admiration of Adas Israel’s members.

What compounded the jolt, though, was the revelation of what had brought about the decision to divorce. In the husband’s words: “I have come to understand that I am gay.”

Even as an Orthodox rabbi and someone who considers living a homosexual life to be a sin, I could not help but feel anguished by the couple’s “heartbreaking decision,” in Rabbi Steinlauf’s words. He went on to characterize his marriage as one in which he and Batya, a wonderful woman… shared a love so deep and real,” in which, together, they “built a loving home with our children founded principally on the values and joys of Jewish life and tradition.”

Reading those words, I hurt for the husband, I hurt for the wife and I hurt for the children.

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Are “Vowed Friendships” Really What We Need?

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I wrote an article for Christianity Today on friendship, basically making the case that we ought to be able to think of our Christian friendships as more significant, committed, public, and permanent than we usually do.

Well, since then, Matthew Lee Anderson has offered a different perspective on his blog. Furthermore, he and his friends devoted an episode of their podcast to talking about the issue, and you can listen to that here.

Now, most recently, the really thoughtful Alastair Roberts has written up his thoughts on the issue, and, as usual, I think they’re worth reading in full. Here’s a sample:

In focusing upon a vow of friendship made to a particular person, we should think about the phenomenon of vow-taking, duty, and commitment more generally within our society and the capacity of deeper vows and loyalties to evoke friendship, without the need for explicit vows. The profound bonds between soldiers arise from loyalty, often involving a vow, to their country and their shared struggle. It is within their fulfilment of these duties that they are knit together with their brothers in arms, without having to take extra vows along the way. Similar things could be said about monastic vows. These vows typically focus upon things beyond the monks’ relationships with each other. Monks can be drawn into close friendship as they are formed together in the same form of life, all ordered towards something greater than and beyond themselves—the service of God and the poor, study, prayer, etc.

One of the deep problems in our understanding of marriage today is that marriage vows have become about a shared narcissism, rather than about the service of something that transcends the couple’s emotional attachment to each other. The institution of marriage is ordered towards creating a new form of society together, within which children can be conceived and welcomed, a wider community served, holy lives lived, and which aims at something greater than individual fulfilment. The vows of marriage exist because marriage, by its very nature as a relationship involving the sexual union of a man and a woman, is ordered towards the creation of something that transcends itself. Having vows of friendship apart from an integral ordering to a greater end seems to me to fall into the same error as the diminished model of marriage in our society.

Rather than taking this route, I believe that the cause of friendship would better be served by attending to our other duties and the other vows that we make. Are we committed and bound to various forms of life that will form us in union with others? If we aren’t, this is where the friendship deficit most likely arises. Instead of vows of friendship, perhaps what we most need is to create common and committed forms of life beyond marriage. As we commit ourselves together to forms of life through which we serve something greater than ourselves we may find that profound kinships arise more naturally.

I don’t think I’ll say anything in response for now. But do go read Alastair’s comments, and if you want to help me keep thinking through these things, I’d be glad to read what you have to say in the combox.

Also, just a reminder, all this is—for me at least!—jumping the gun a bit. My CT article was just the teaser-trailer for the book I’ve written that will, Lord willing, be on shelves in April 2015. So please don’t lose interest in the conversation before then! In other words, I still hope you’ll read my book.

Against Christian Triumphalism

I had a piece published yesterday over at First Things on how we might avoid moralistic striving in the same-sex marriage debates in the church. Drawing on the work of the twentieth-century French Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac, I talked about the need for grace to pervade the way we talked about sexual holiness:

Sexual abstinence is not an end in itself, [Mauriac] says, undertaken to demonstrate one’s own moral heroism. Our purity of mind and body is rather, firstly, for the sake of love for Christ—“His love does not allow any sharing”—and, secondly, for the sake of those whom Christ loves, for the sake of honoring the sanctity of the bodies and souls to whom we are attracted. “We have to be pure,” Mauriac writes, “in order to give ourselves to others, for Christ’s love is love for others.”

And the only way such purity is achievable in Christian lives is not by white-knuckled effort but by receiving a love whose sweetness somehow exceeds what we naturally think we want. “Christ,” Mauriac concludes, “is ready to substitute Himself in a sovereign and absolute way for that hunger and thirst, to substitute another thirst and another hunger.” The Sermon on the Mount is more carrot than pitchfork: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” The allure of the beatific vision, not the threat of punishment, is what Jesus uses to motivate the ascetic regime.

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A Book I’d Like to Write (or At Least Read)

Reading Conor Friedersdorf’s piece from The Atlantic’s website a couple of days ago, I was reminded of a publishing dream I have. Here’s the idea: I would like to write a book for a mainstream press that tries to explain to a skeptical audience what it’s like to hold a traditional Christian sexual ethic. An insider’s report, so to speak, for traditional religion’s puzzled and interested observers. A longer version of the kind of thing Friedersdorf says Christians need to be doing.

What this book would not be is an apologetic. It wouldn’t necessarily try to persuade anyone to embrace that ethic for themselves. I mean, since I believe such an ethic is based on truth, I wouldn’t object if anyone wants to sign up! But getting people to do so just wouldn’t be the main aim of this particular project. The book wouldn’t be an evangelistic tract; it would be, I suppose, “pre-evangelistic.” In terms of posture, tone, and approach, I’d want it position it alongside Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, an honest address to those whom Schleiermacher called Christianity’s “cultured despisers.”

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“Gay in Christ: Dimensions of Fidelity”

Save the date for a conference in October with many of us here at Spiritual Friendship—including Ron Belgau, Chris Damian, Joshua Gonnerman, Kyle Keating, Chris Roberts, Melinda Selmys, Eve Tushnet, and yours truly!

“Gay in Christ: Dimensions of Fidelity” will be held at the University of Notre Dame from October 31 through November 1. Here’s a description:

What would be an appropriate pastoral strategy for Catholic parishes with respect to parishioners who regard themselves as non-heterosexual in identity but accept the teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage and sexuality? What are the issues that need to be addressed before such a pastoral strategy could be created? At the very least, these would seem to include issues of vocation and identity, the intersection of friendship, sanctification, and intimacy, of love, acceptance and family, and what it means to give and receive gifts in a Church community. It is the hope of this colloquium that we can stretch our own imaginations regarding the possibilities involved. Can the Church be better at receiving the gifts offered to the Church by self-identified gay Catholics who accept Church teaching?  In turn, how can the gifts of ecclesial life in the parish be better attuned to the needs of these self-identified gay members? This workshop style conference is intended to explore such issues with a view towards the eventual recommendation of local pastoral strategies for parish communities.

The conference is free, but the Institute for Church Life is asking you to register if you’d like to attend. I know I speak for all of us who are attending from SF when I say that we’d love to see you there and have the chance to meet and talk face to face!

Dietrich and Eberhard

I’ve mentioned Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer several times here in recent months—there’s a round-up here—but now my full review has been published and is online at Books & Culture. Here’s my conclusion:

On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested. The charges didn’t initially include his involvement in a plot on Hitler’s life (those details would emerge later); they were, rather, lackluster accusations related to his trip to the UK, his avoidance of military service, and other “minor” offenses to do with incendiary speech and assistance to the non-state sanctioned church. Soon he was transferred from a Gestapo cell to the military prison at Tegel. And it was there, finally, that Bonhoeffer tried to put into words the faith he had come to embrace.

Much of what he wrote was centered around [his closest friend Eberhard] Bethge, whom Marsh’s portrayal foregrounds. Bonhoeffer loved Bethge in a way he never loved anyone else, not even his (much younger) fiancée, Maria. “[T]he human,” he wrote, “is created in such a way that we seek not the many but the one particular.” (Again, Bonhoeffer rejected the monastic preference for companies rather than pairs.) One could speculate that Bonhoeffer was a homosexual, albeit a celibate one, but Marsh wisely avoids any clear-cut verdict on that score. He lingers over the relationship, revealing its depth and intensity in a way no other scholar has attempted. But what emerges most clearly from that close attention is not a homoerotically inclined Bonhoeffer to the exclusion of a “quite normal” one (to use Bethge’s designation for his friend) but a Bonhoeffer whose zeal for intimacy and filial, spiritual closeness complicates and overflows the categories by which we often classify such things. I think here of Rowan Williams’ conclusion that romantic love and the love of same-sex friendship are best understood as “different forms of one passion—the passion for life-giving interconnection.”

Perhaps it was the austerity of the war years that made Bonhoeffer eschew the timidity of expression he might otherwise have disciplined himself to observe in his friendship with Bethge (“[I]n the months here in prison I have had quite a terrible longing,” he exclaimed in one of his letters). Or perhaps the reason for his pursuit of such a friendship was deeper than merely a consciousness of time having grown short. Perhaps it was owing, more fundamentally, to what Bonhoeffer had come to see as the way to embody the faith and spirituality he had long sought. “God, the Eternal,” he wrote to Bethge in 1944, “wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of cantus firmus”—the primary musical voice to which other voices in a polyphonic composition relate in counterpoint. God is found and known and loved in the world, in relationships, in the love between human beings, “in a few people one wants to see and with whom one wishes to be together,” Bonhoeffer said. If true, it was an experience of God he would only know for a few months longer. He was executed in April 1945, just before the Allied forces arrived to liberate the Nazi prisons but not before he had asked Bethge to save his prison letters for possible publication. It was one of the last exchanges Bonhoeffer had with “the man who was his soul mate,” and, thus, it seems to be the most natural, the most intimate, lens through which to view Bonhoeffer’s entire life.

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You Can’t Be a Virgin Alone

I was talking a bit this week with Todd Billings, who is a professor of Reformed theology at Western Seminary in Holland Michigan, and he passed along an essay he wrote when he was single and in his late twenties. The piece is a reflection of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity, and I found it very engaging.

A sample:

Gregory’s vision of virginal life is one of fullness, not absence. “The more we come to know the wealth of virginity the more we have disdain for the other life, having learned from the comparison how many precious things it lacks.” Divided love — non-virginal love — is poor love.

Indeed, while Seinfeld’s Elaine would be horrified at the thought, Gregory calls attention to the “freedom of virginity.” The virginal soul, its attachments rooted in God, has freedom from “greed, anger, hatred, the desire for empty fame and all such things.” Since the virginal soul does not seek after these other loves, it is not a slave to them. It is free to be a bride of Christ.

Further, for Gregory, virginity is not a curse or an accident, but a “gift” with great “grandeur.” It does not result from God’s failing to provide someone to love, but from “grace.” The virgin anticipates the time when there will be “no distance between himself and the presence of God.” To experience a foretaste of eternal life with God is far from an accident.

We have grown accustomed to seeing virginity in terms of lack — an empty bed, a Valentine’s Day spent alone. But Gregory reverses the imagery. Virginity is a special foretaste of the divine presence, an anticipation of the resurrected state where believers are especially suited to experience this presence. Moreover, for Gregory, virginity is an “ally” and a friend. It accompanies us on the Christian path of rejecting the worldly loves that threaten to displace our love for God. For the Christian, virginity is not about loneliness. Indeed, for the Christian, it is impossible to be a virgin alone.

The whole essay is thoughtful and accessible—do read it all—and it’s doubly encouraging to me to think of it originally being published in the ecumenical magazine Regeneration Quarterly, which had a sizable evangelical readership when it was still in print. Sometimes working against their own history and current church cultures, many Reformed and more broadly Reformational evangelicals whom I know want to try to rediscover and honor celibacy in their churches today. May their tribe increase.

‘Til Death Do Us Part (and Why That’s About Friendship Too)

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I wrote the cover story for this month’s issue of Christianity Today on—you guessed it!—friendship.

A lot of what I say in the piece grew out of conversations here at SF, and I am truly grateful to you all for reading and thinking with me over the past months about these things. A fuller version will appear in my forthcoming book, but until then, here’s a teaser trailer:

I imagine a future in the church when the call to chastity would no longer sound like a dreary sentence to lifelong loneliness for a gay Christian like me. I imagine Christian communities in which friendships are celebrated and honored—where it’s normal for families to live near or with single people; where it’s expected that celibate gay people would form significant attachments to other single people, families, and pastors; where it’s standard practice for friends to spend holidays together or share vacations; where it’s not out of the ordinary for friends to consider staying put, resisting the allure of constant mobility, for the sake of their friendships. I imagine a church where genuine love isn’t located exclusively or even primarily in marriage, but where marriage and friendship and other bonds of affection are all seen as different forms of the same love we all are called to pursue.

By shifting our practice of friendship to a more committed, honored form of love, we can witness—above all—to a kingdom in which the ties between spiritual siblings are the strongest ties of all. Marriage, Jesus tells us, will be entirely transformed in the future, barely recognizable to those who know it in its present form (Matt. 22:30). Bonds of biology, likewise, are relativized in Jesus’ world (Mark 3:31–35). But the loves that unite Christians to each other across marital, racial, and familial lines are loves that will last. More than that, they are loves that witness that Christ’s love is available to all. Not everyone can be a parent or a spouse, but anyone and everyone can be a friend.

Read the whole thing.

Conference on Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction

The seminary where I teach, Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, is hosting a conference on October 10-11 that I hope many of you will be able to attend. We’re calling it “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Finding Paths to Ministry,” and SF’s own Mark Yarhouse, Melinda Selmys, and Eve Tushnet (along with yours truly) will be featured speakers. Further details are here, the schedule is here, and the registration page is here.

Here’s the way we’re pitching the conference:

How can our churches speak the Good News of Jesus Christ to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer neighbors? And how can their faith and discipleship be nurtured so that they, in turn, can use their gifts and exercise their ministries in our churches? “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction” is a conference designed to explore these questions. The historic biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality affirms that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, requiring fidelity and chastity, while the chaste single state is equally honored and celebrated. Such teaching requires sacrifice and discipline on the part of gay Christians (as it does for all Christians), but it also affirms the blessings and opportunities that gay people bring to the life of faith. “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction” will provide a forum in which to examine these questions for the sake of Christian witness in our world today.

I really hope many of you will be able to join us! And even if you can’t come, please help spread the word!

UPDATE: There’s also a very similar conference happening at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis a couple of weeks later, October 24-25. Details are here. If you can’t make it to Pittsburgh, join us in St. Louis!