The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention is hosting a Summit from April 21 to 23, and the topic is “The Gospel and Human Sexuality.” Last night, after the panel had discussed “The Gospel and Homosexuality,” I was scrolling through tweets from people I follow who had been listening in to the livestream. You can access the tweets here, with the hashtag #erlcsummit, and I’ll just note that Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s are the most informative.
It’s probably definitely unwise to make an assessment of a conference based on a Twitter stream, and I’ll almost certainly regret writing this post tomorrow, but a couple of things struck me as especially comment-worthy. (Apparently the video sessions will be available to watch after the summit concludes, which means that I won’t get to them for another day or two.)
Describing the new community of the baptized, Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free”—and then you’d expect him to follow it up with “there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). But he doesn’t. He breaks the rhythm of the sentence and writes, “there is no longer male and female” (ouk eni arsen kai thelu). He trades in the “neither/nor” structure and substitutes instead the simple conjunction “and” (kai), which is puzzling.
Numerous readers have noticed that Paul is here alluding to the Greek version of Genesis 1:27, which reads: “God made man; according to the image of God, he made him; male and female he made them.” The implication, then, of Paul’s words would seem to be that there is something about the structure of creation itself that is now being altered or reconfigured by the work of Christ. As the great biblical scholar J. Louis Martyn has put it, there seems to be in view here a “new creation in which the building blocks of the old creation are said to be nonexistent.”
Here’s something that may interest some of you.
On Saturday I spoke at a conference on singleness at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, and the videos are all online if you want to watch them. My session starts (I’ve been told, I think!) around the 40-minute mark in the video labeled “Morning Sessions,” and I was also on a panel with the other speakers in the afternoon.
It was a real joy to finally have the chance to visit Redeemer. I’ve been listening to Tim Keller’s preaching since I was in high school, so it was a huge honor to meet him and Kathy and Brent Bounds the other amazing conference organizers. If any of you are reading this, thank you again for the warm hospitality and the stimulating conversation!
In the process of doing some research on George Herbert, I stumbled across a passage from Stanley Cavell’s essay on King Lear that I think is relevant to the themes I’ve been pursuing at here at SF. Discussing the character of the Earl of Gloucester, Cavell writes that
if the failure to recognize others is a failure to let others recognize you, a fear of what is revealed to them, an avoidance of their eyes, then it is exactly shame which is the cause of his withholding of recognition [of his bastard son Edmund]…. For shame is the specific discomfort produced by the sense of being looked at, the avoidance of the sight of others is the reflex it produces. Guilt is different; there is the reflex to avoid discovery. As long as no one knows what you have done, you are safe; or your conscience will press you to confess it and accept punishment. Under shame, what must be covered up is not your deed, but yourself. It is a more primitive emotion than guilt, as inescapable as the possession of a body, the first object of shame.
There’s much to ponder here, not least in relation to Lear itself, but I’m especially interested in the generic insight that the result of shame is an inability truly to see others, to offer others recognition. As Cavell puts it later, “recognizing a person depends upon allowing oneself to be recognized.”
This is one of the main reasons that I encourage gay Christians, when they ask me for advice, to come out. It’s not just that the enormous effort it takes to hide your sexuality involves an unhealthy self-focus, a constant policing of speech and actions, which can be profoundly crippling to your spiritual life (if my experience is any indication). It’s also that staying in the closet can cause you to refuse to recognize your gay or lesbian neighbors, all in an effort to stay hidden yourself.
I haven’t yet been able to read Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert cover to cover, but I do want to highlight one portion of it that I’ve been thinking about recently in relation to our project here at Spiritual Friendship. Towards the end, Butterfield writes:
What good Christians don’t realize is that sexual sin is not recreational sex gone overboard. Sexual sin is predatory. It won’t be “healed” by redeeming the context or the genders. Sexual sin must simply be killed. What is left of your sexuality after this annihilation is up to God. But healing, to the sexual sinner, is death; nothing more and nothing less.
From the context, I think it’s clear that Butterfield is making an anti-Pelagian point. She’s saying that what we sexual sinners need is not a touch-up operation that amounts to little more than a project of moral self-improvement. What we need, instead, is total, absolute surrender—death to the entirety of our old ways of thinking and living, and rebirth on God’s terms. So, for instance, she goes on to say that a lot of young Christians think their pornography addictions will be cured if they can just get married. (A misreading of 1 Corinthians 7:9, I might add.) But no, Butterfield says, “Marriage does not redeem sin. Only Jesus can do that.” The project of self-salvation, even with something sanctified like marriage, is doomed from the get-go.
Now, the reason I’ve been thinking about this is that it could be read as antithetical to the work we’re trying to do here at SF. We say things like this: Our same-sex love can “express itself as chaste friendship or mystical approach to God rather than as gay sex.” Which could imply that we think our being gay shouldn’t be surrendered to daily death so much as it should be reinterpreted or redeemed or reformed.
During college, I was part of a young men’s prayer group, and our leader, an Anglican priest, once gave us a copy of a letter C. S. Lewis sent in 1956 to Keith Masson, an American reader of his. The topic of the letter was masturbation. Here is an excerpt:
For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself…. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination.
The true exercise of imagination, in my view, is (a) To help us to understand other people (b) To respond to, and, some of us, to produce, art. But it has also a bad use: to provide for us, in shadowy form, a substitute for virtues, successes, distinctions etc. which ought to be sought outside in the real world—e.g. picturing all I’d do if I were rich instead of earning and saving. Masturbation involves this abuse of imagination in erotic matters (which I think bad in itself) and thereby encourages a similar abuse of it in all spheres. After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison.
This is a wise and humane letter, and when my fellow students and I received it from our mentor many years ago, it generated several lines of fruitful conversation. But rereading it now, I’m struck afresh by its particular vantage point: It is written with the assumption, it seems, that its recipient will one day marry. The harem that the lustful young man keeps in his imagination “works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman.” I’m sure Lewis was right to take that approach, but it makes me wonder what he would have said to many of us who are celibate and not planning to be married. If we are going to avoid masturbation, we need a different incentive than the one Lewis offers, since few of us expect to “unite with a real woman” someday.
Simone Weil once scribbled down the following “method of investigation,” as she called it: “as soon as one has arrived at any position, try to find in what sense the contrary is true.” Ever since I first read that sentence, I’ve wanted to get it tattooed on my forearm—or at least placarded prominently over my writing desk.
Weil’s “method” explains the appeal to me of my favorite kind of writing—the kind that takes a too-neat, too-tidy narrative and shows how I’ve settled for more simplicity than is warranted. I loved, for instance, this sentence from a book review I read a couple of days ago, LaVonne Neff’s take on Jeanne Murray Walker’s The Geography of Memory: “These are my roots, Walker is saying: … my family’s fundamentalist church, full of answers and rules but also full of love.” As soon as Neff evokes the image of a “fundamentalist church” that we were expecting, she immediately prevents us from holding onto it in any straightforward way: this was a church full of care and warmth, in spite of the narrowness.
Always saying “it’s complicated” can be a bad thing. But it also helps to guard against hasty generalizations that could prove to be genuinely harmful to people.
Here’s what prompted this.
I was recently reading my friend Sean Doherty’s testimony of his involvement, as a man who experiences same-sex attraction, in various evangelical parishes in the UK. Sean’s story is deeply encouraging, insofar as it includes sentences like this: “At university I said I was gay, and I never experienced homophobic treatment from other Christians…. [L]ove and acceptance was my consistent experience…. I found the church to be a deeply supportive and affirming place. I was nurtured, given responsibility in ministry, and encouraged towards ordination.” That is a wonderful story that needs to be told. And Sean’s main point—that “homophobia” and “traditional Christian belief about marriage and celibacy” aren’t equivalent—is one that needs spelling out, as Sean does: “[L]ove and unconditional acceptance of gay people does not require approval of same-sex sexual activity…. [M]y experience has convinced me that this prejudice and mistreatment does not come from believing what the Bible says about marriage and sex.”
A couple of days ago, Rowan Williams addressed the matter of weddings becoming ever more extravagant events:
Speaking at a debate entitled “Marriage: Love or Law” in London, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said that the “marketisation of marriage” must be curtailed.
He labelled the idea of “the perfect relationship crystallised in the perfect wedding day” as a farce, suggesting that it was nothing more than the product of “immense economic advertising investment in this massively fantastical experience … after which, of course, nothing is ever quite so good again”…
According to Lord Williams, who is now master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, the way in which weddings have become hugely aspirational “experiences” as opposed to a simple public declaration of commitment is having a detrimental effect on the stability and longevity of marriages.
Reading this made me think of some similar remarks made a while ago by Duke Divinity School ethicist Amy Laura Hall:
The way that young Protestant couples plan their weddings bodes very ill for the kind of family they are hoping to become. You watch what a wedding is often about these days—it is about displaying one’s wealth to those one is eager to impress. If you think instead about the scriptural wedding itself, about being the open banquet that one hopes one’s marriage will be, I think weddings would look a lot different than they do. I think they would be on a Sunday morning service where everyone is invited. I think they would look more like a potluck than the kind of catered extravagances toward which even the middle class is climbing. I think the image of the banquet where the blind and the lame are invited, and those who cannot repay us, that image would be one in which to start a marriage.
I’ve been reading a few recent essays on sexual ethics written for a popular audience. A couple of them have focused specifically on homosexuality, and each one draws a strikingly similar contrast. On the one hand, these essays describe a kind of Christian faith that is focused on “certainty,” on “black and white answers,” on “knowing what’s right,” and the arrogant rigidity and coldness that goes along with that. On the other hand, these essays talk about a different sort of Christian faith, one that is more interested in “exploration,” in “questions,” in “living with tension,” in “loving real people where they’re at,” in being willing to brave the “messiness” of “life in the trenches.” (All the quotes here are paraphrases because I’m not trying to single out one author or essay or book for critique. I’m more interested in observing a trend in the reading I’ve been doing.)
In response, I find myself wanting to ask, over and over again:
- Is it possible that the “certainty” that pre-marital sex is a bad idea is itself the result of profound “exploration,” of “living in tension,” or “loving real people”?
- Is it possible that the “black and white answer” of marriage being a covenant between one man and one woman is an answer that’s been forged as Christians have “wrestled” with the “messiness” of “real life”?
- Is it possible that the “rigid, arrogant knowledge” that divorce is something Christians ought to work hard to prevent is the result of a profound “struggle” to “meet people where they’re at”?
- Can we at least entertain the idea, for the sake of argument, that the Christian tradition’s “answers” on sexual ethics aren’t just the product of unexamined patriarchal assumptions and power moves on the part of greedy bishops and priests?
- Can we at least consider the idea that the tradition might have been crafted, in part, from a hard-won, long-sought-after, humane wisdom that knew things about humanity and sexuality that we, in our time, may have forgotten?
I’ve got an essay in the new issue of The Other Journal, which is now available online. It’s called “The Problem of Gay Friendship,” and it will give you some idea of how the book I’m writing is taking shape. Here’s an excerpt:
Going back to Aelred, it’s significant that most of the saint’s gay admirers admit that, although the eleventh century abbot likely experienced what we now call a “homosexual orientation,” he himself was celibate. The man who could describe a friend as one “to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul” and one whom you could embrace “in the kiss of unity, with the sweetness of the Holy Spirit flowing over you” apparently never had gay sex. What Aelred called “spiritual friendship” was a form of same-sex intimacy that sublimated or transmuted erotic passion, rather than sanctioning its genital expression. In light of this, I wonder what it might look like to part ways with Aelred’s largest circle of admirers today and attempt to recover the abbot’s original vision of an intimacy between friends that didn’t involve a physical, sexual union.
I’d love to hear from you in the com-box if you have a chance to read this. (That would help as I work on revising my manuscript.)
My main gripe about my own essay is that I think I should have engaged more deeply and carefully with the objection Gerald Bray raises—that speaking of “gay friendship” runs the risk of making sexual desire part of the definition of a friendship and therefore subverts friendship’s true character. Bray is not the only one to voice this worry, and it’s a question that deserves more of a response than I was able to give in this article.