A Blessed Feast of St. Aelred to You

Aelred icon

Today is the feast day of Aelred of Rievaulx, often called the patron saint of friendship. The image above is a photograph of an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM, that some dear friends of mine gave me at Christmas this year.

And here is my memory of visiting the ruin of Rievaulx Abbey a few years ago:

Rounding the bend in the road from the village of Thirsk in North Yorkshire, your first glimpse of Rievaulx Abbey will take your breath away. One minute you’re on a backcountry lane, charmed by the gentle slopes and the green of the farmlands but unprepared for the sudden sight of gray stone walls and arches. The next minute you’re staring at an eleventh-century Cistercian ruin, enclosed in a wooded dale like an unearthed treasure. Coming from the opposite direction, from the east, you might have the reaction my friend described to me once in an e-mail: “I’ve only ever approached Rievaulx on foot, after the over-the-moors-and-through-the-forest walk from Helmsley, but whenever I go there, I imagine those first monks standing in that valley, with the lovely little river running through it and the low wooded hills to break the wind, and saying, ‘Yes. This is the place.’”

My one visit to Rievaulx was a pilgrimage of sorts to honor Aelred, the abbey’s fourth abbot who ruled the Benedictine community from 1147 until his death in 1167. Known best for his treatises On Spiritual Friendship and The Mirror of Charity, in which he sketched a vision for monastic community, Aelred has become the unofficial patron saint of friendship, owing to his powerful depiction of the spiritual fruitfulness of same-sex love. I went to Rievaulx out of gratitude for that witness. I stood in what remains of the abbot’s quarters—now just a stone outline indicating where the four walls would have been—and said a prayer of thanks for the treatises that say of friendship what we moderns typically reserve for marital love: “See to what limits love should reach among friends, namely to a willingness to die for each other.”

I don’t know how you might choose to mark Aelred’s feast day today, or if you’re even comfortable marking saints’ feast days, but I’d encourage you to try something, be it small or large. I myself am planning to make a simple dinner for my housemates to give thanks for their company tonight. Perhaps you would want to start planning an “anniversary of friendship” trip to celebrate the years you’ve known a particular friend, as a friend of mine is planning at the moment for a longtime friend of hers. Or perhaps you’d want to write a note to a friend, expressing your gratitude with words. Maybe you’d want to approach your pastor or priest and ask him or her to come and pray a blessing over you and your friend. Or maybe you’d want to suggest to your priest that there be a Sunday School class or church retreat on the topic, and you could help with the planning and implementation of it. If you’re in college, maybe you’d want to suggest to your campus minister that there be a small group Bible study on the theme; I know one campus minister who’s just written one for her students, and she tells me it’s been a big hit.

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Does Your Church *Like* Gay People?

On Sunday, while I was in Denver to see my brother and sister-in-law, I visited House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS), one of the most well known queer-inclusive churches in the country, I suppose. But that reputation wasn’t the only reason why I visited, despite my obvious personal investment in those matters and my intense curiosity on that front. Mostly I chose to visit because I’ve been pretty powerfully affected by Lutheran preaching—with its law/gospel dialectic—and HFASS’ pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, is preaching some of the most potent Lutheran sermons around these days. I first heard about HFASS and Nadia from this article by Jason Byassee, I think, and then I read Nadia’s book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint. Suffice it to say, since then, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to hear this tattooed, foul-mouthed preacher in person, and this last Sunday was my chance.

Now, I disagree with Nadia Bolz-Weber pretty seriously on a whole host of things, many of which I take to be urgently central matters of Christian faith and practice. As a theologically conservative believer who thinks that traditional Christian moral teaching on (say) gay sex can’t be neatly separated from creedal orthodoxy (as if the former were revisable, with the latter able to be preserved intact), I don’t want to offer unqualified praise in this post for what Nadia Bolz-Weber’s ministry is about. Still, though, I find myself agreeing with Rod Dreher that I have something—or more than one thing!—to learn from her about what it means to be a Christian. As I sat there on Sunday night watching her interact with her congregation, and listening to her preach, I found myself wishing that what she models were more characteristic of the conservative churches and communities in which I live and minister. In short, I’m provoked and instructed by her, and I expect to go on learning from her in the coming years.

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On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment

As Mark Yarhouse pointed out yesterday, Julie Rodgers (and by extension many of the rest of us who blog here at Spiritual Friendship) has recently been facing criticism from her fellow Christians for the way she describes her sexuality and her faith. She writes:

A gay orientation can be understood as an overall draw toward someone of the same sex, which is usually a desire for a deeper level intimacy with those of the same sex. Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex, a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex. This longing for intimacy is usually experienced as a desire for nearness, for partnership, for close friendship, rich conversation, and an overall appreciation of beauty. The best way I can describe my experience of “being gay” is that with certain women I feel the “it” factor: that sense of chemistry that longs to share life with them, to know and be known by them, to be drawn outside of myself in self-giving love for them. When I feel all Lesbiany, I experience it as a desire to build a home with a woman that will create an energizing love that spills over into the kind of hospitality that actually provides guests with clean sheets and something other than protein bars. Most women feel that chemistry or longing for other men (even though it can’t be reduced to a desire to have sex with other men), while I usually feel like “bros” with men. This causes me to see the world through a different lens than my straight peers, to exist in the world in a slightly different way. As God has redeemed and transformed me, he’s tapped into those gay parts of me that now overflow into compassion for marginalized people and empathy for social outcasts—he’s used my gay way of being for His glory rather than making me straight.

Here’s an example of the kind of pushback Julie has received: Owen Strachan, an assistant professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College, has argued that this way of speaking

is deeply problematic. It is flawed at the core. Our sins do not enrich our perspective on life; our sins twist God’s good gifts and obscure the purposes of our bodies and our world. Sin never improves your outlook on the world. It always distorts it. Please hear me: there is nothing redemptive about sin. Grace, on the other hand, is the very substance of redemption. But sin has nothing to do with goodness. As far as the east is from the west, so far is sin from any positive moral component.

You can read the rest of his argument here, which can be summarized in three points: “1. The Bible never speaks of positive components of our sins… 2. Homosexuality in Scripture is not neutral. It is evil… 3. Homosexual orientation, therefore, does not yield an enhanced Christian spirituality.”

I’m still trying to understand for myself exactly where the disagreement lies, so this post isn’t going to be my last word on the subject. For now, I just want to try out a thought experiment. I want to suggest that these sharply differing views—Julie’s and Owen Strachan’s—are, in part, the result of different understandings of what “homosexuality” fundamentally is.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, depending on which historical era you lived in, you thought about same-sex desire and same-sex sexual expression differently. If you were a Christian in the medieval era, for instance, you probably thought of same-sex sexual behavior as an instance of lust giving birth to passionate transgression. What was in your sights wasn’t “gay culture” or “being gay” but acting wrongly or desiring wrongly (i.e., being tempted, nurturing lustful imaginations, etc.). You thought about sex between persons of the same sex as a vice that could potentially befall anyone, and you knew that Christianity condemned it categorically, no matter who committed it or what extenuating circumstances there might have been. Continue reading

Coming Out Again

Earlier this week I was talking briefly online with a friend who’s still in the middle of the process of coming out to family and friends. It’s been a few years since I was in his shoes, and hearing him describe both the newfound freedom and the emotional exhaustion of coming out took me back to those moments of my own life.

I think, for instance, of sitting with a friend at her kitchen table late one night. I’d come upstairs from my basement apartment to where she and her husband lived on the third floor of the house, having decided this would be the night I confided in her, dear friend that she was. And even though I counted on it going well, and even though I’d had the same conversation with other friends a half dozen times in the previous weeks, I still felt jittery. Imagine knowing you are about to describe some hitherto hidden part of your psyche and your life’s narrative that, somehow, isn’t just one discrete part but rather something that suffuses the whole. (My hands are sweating a little as I type these words now, even recalling that moment about ten years later.)

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Panel on the Sinfulness, or Otherwise, of “Sexual Orientation”

This past weekend I was in San Diego for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, where I presented a paper-length version of my “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?” post from a few months ago. I’m not quite ready to post the paper here, since I think there are various weaknesses and not-quite-clear arguments in it, but I hope to revisit the main ideas at some point in the future. Stay tuned.

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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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