One of the most common ways to argue against the traditional sexual ethic is to cite all the negative consequences that are said to flow directly from it. For example, people point to the high rates of depression and suicide among sexual minorities who grow up within conservative religious communities, and they also remind us that even those who don’t face the most severe mental health consequences still often deal with isolation, fear, shame, and stigma.
The basic argument is this: if we are to judge teachings by their fruit, then we can judge the traditional view of sexual ethics as wrong and immoral.
A common knee-jerk reaction I see from some conservatives is a denial of the problems. I’ve heard several people argue that these claims are just smokescreens for people who want to justify immoral behavior.
I don’t know if I can put this strongly enough: the problems cited are very real, and to deny their existence is to be extraordinarily calloused and unloving. I’ve even experienced some of them, like the fear and shame, myself. And I’ve heard enough stories to know that even the more serious ones like suicidal ideation are shockingly common.
I’m sure the last thing that most of us want to read is yet another pontification on the term “gay”. Hear me out.
In his book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, the great Reformed theologian John Murray makes a helpful observation that sheds some light on our modern discussion of LGBT terminology. Discussing the Calvinist teaching of Limited Atonement, he asks whether or not the title of the doctrine is a fair representation of the content. He concludes, “But it is not the term used that is important; it is that which it denotes.”
I bring this up, not to discuss controversial doctrines, but because John Murray has unintentionally put his finger on one of the main issues in the gay debate. It seems that one of the questions of perennial interest in this conversation about sexuality is, “What does the term ‘gay’ denote?” Does it denote a particular behavior or sinful lifestyle? Or does it simply describe an experience of sexuality, and say nothing one way or the other about how that experience is lived out? Many conservatives insist on anathematizing the term because they argue it necessarily entails a sinful expression of sexuality. They assert that people who label themselves as gay usually mean to say that they also engage in gay sex.
We here at Spiritual Friendship are living testaments to the fact that this is a false assumption. There are many people that mean no such thing by labeling themselves as gay. In fact, I truly believe that most people in our culture, even unbelievers, do not normally give the term “gay” such a meaning that would denote sexual activity. So why, then, is it such a widely held assumption?
There are a number of factors that contribute to my conservative views as a celibate-gay Christian. The traditional view of marriage that I’ve held my whole life rests on several things and goes beyond the main passages of scripture that are so often brought up. Scripture is of course foundational for many of my beliefs regarding my sexuality as are the consistent teachings of the Church for over two millennia; they aren’t however the strongest day to day reminders of why I’ve chosen celibacy as my path. From my Eastern Orthodox upbringing I’ve grown up with the stories of countless men and women who have followed Christ’s call to take up their cross, deny themselves and follow after him. These saints, and especially the ascetics, are my daily reminder of the well-worn path I pursue.
Certainly many of these saints followed celibacy, often in a monastic context, but it’s not for that reason alone that I feel convicted in my own celibacy. Rather, it is that each and every one of them saw absolutely nothing as being of greater value or worth than Christ. There was nothing exceptionally radical, or out of place in their belief that in their pursuit of Christ everything was on the table, including their very life. Because of their witness, and their lives which we listen to and sing about daily in the Church the idea that surrendering my own desire for romantic intimacy and the erotic expression of that desire was something too great to be asked to give seems less out of place or extreme. That isn’t to diminish the weight and the calling of the Church and of community to help each other bear whatever burden they may be called to endure, but rather helps me place my own suffering and my own self-denial in the ancient tradition of the saints of the Church.
I recently came across the work of Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest who released an extensive longitudinal study of the sexual practices of Catholic clergy in 1990. Though the book largely focuses on failures to live out celibacy, Sipe points out what he found to be four essential elements of a “mature adjustment to celibacy”:
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.
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.
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.
While observing the conversation about faith and sexuality over the past few years I have witnessed a depressing number of harmful and untrue words come out of someone’s mouth right after the preface, “Well, as someone with a conservative ethic…” or “As someone who is ‘side-B’…” (Side-B being clunky shorthand for a more traditional sexual ethic, for those who hadn’t heard it before.)
I understand that some of these people are new to the discussion, are becoming more aware of something that they used to not even have to think about. But…
It’s hard, sometimes, to watch people who are insulated from the consequences of their words keep saying the same harmful things over and over. And it becomes harder when these words are used by others as the example of a “traditional sexual ethic.”
Recently, Wesley Hill posted some wonderful thoughts here about the film Desire of the Everlasting Hills. It is a captivating documentary about three Christians who either return or convert to Catholic Christianity, leaving behind active homosexual lifestyles. There are so many wonderful takeaways, many of which Wes highlights quite well. But I want to focus on one aspect of their stories that struck me as particularly powerful: sacrificial love.
It is no secret that the theological river where I happily find myself swimming believes in a traditional, Side B sexual ethic where all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is contrary to the clear teaching of scripture. I have no qualms with the teaching. However, many times this strongly held belief can go too far, resulting in characterizations of gay people in monogamous relationships that are misinformed or worse (homophobic).
The folks over at A Queer Calling have an interesting article up today in which they deftly tackle several common misunderstandings about celibacy.
Among several errors they single out for deconstruction, there is this:
An argument we hear from some Christians with a liberal sexual ethic goes something like, “No LGBT person can choose celibacy freely unless his/her Christian tradition also affirms gay marriage. If the celibate LGBT person belongs to a non-affirming tradition, a sense of calling doesn’t matter. If all vocation options aren’t open, the choice to pursue celibacy—the only option—is meaningless.”
This is a view I like to call grocery store celibacy, because the view of the Christian moral life it paints is one much like a grocery store. The more “choices” and “options” you have, and the more unhindered you are in being able to freely decide which option you want to choose from the smorgasbord on offer, the more moral value the choice you eventually make will have. The closer the Christian life comes to reflecting the economy of a consumerist society, the more Christian it is, allegedly.
All the B Siders I talked to were eager to combat the widespread view of celibacy as necessarily leading to a life of unending loneliness and isolation. In fact, many of the discussions they have among themselves have moved past the question of whether and why to remain celibate and on to how one can do so and still live a fulfilling life. This more practical, positive focus is intended to address something they believe has long been lacking in the mostly negative messages that their faith communities have long presented to LGBTQ people.