Some Clarifications Regarding Sexual Orientation and Spiritual Friendship

In contemporary Western culture, it’s common to describe oneself as gay, straight, or bi, depending on whether one’s sexual attractions are primarily directed to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid either the terminology or the assumptions behind it.

As I have said before, I think that the contrast between carnal and spiritual friendship, as described by Aelred of Rievaulx, ultimately provides a more helpful framework for understanding Christian teaching on same-sex friendship and homosexuality than the framework that categorizes people based on sexual orientation. However, sexual orientation categories are difficult to avoid. It’s not just a matter of words used: it’s also a matter of much deeper assumptions that shape the way people interpret their experience.

School of Athens

In this post, I want to examine these categories more closely. Doing so will, I hope, provide insight into why the writers at Spiritual Friendship have been willing to engage with—and how we have tried to challenge—the categories of sexual orientation and sexual identity in contemporary culture.

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Three Cheers for Eve Tushnet!

Tushnet book cover

Over at Christianity Today, I’ve got a review up of our own Eve Tushnet’s new book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.

The first part of the review is my very personal story of stumbling upon Eve’s blog—now hosted by Patheos—several years ago:

Sometime in 2007 I discovered Eve Tushnet’s writing. I can’t recall exactly how I found her non-flashy, off-the-beaten-path blog, tagged with the teasing moniker “Conservatism reborn in twisted sisterhood,” but somehow I landed there, following a trail of hyperlinks. I used to read her posts in the morning, while sipping coffee, huddled over my laptop in my cell-like flat in England, when I was just starting graduate school.

Tushnet is a gay Catholic writer who embraces her church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. By the time I learned about her, I’d been admitting to myself for a few years that I was gay, though I hadn’t told many other people yet. I was still too frightened and unsure of what kind of welcome (or lack thereof) I’d receive. You know those novels and movies about the yearning, aching twentysomethings who are trying to disentangle and sort out their erotic and religious longings, while dreading loneliness and rejection above all else? That was me. Imagine Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisited, all angsty and insecure, but with a small-town-USA upbringing, and you’ll get the picture. I needed a lifeline. I was hungry to know I wasn’t alone.

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“Chaste, Gay Couples” and the Church

I’ve noticed curiosity recently about the idea of “chaste, gay couples”—couples who accept the Church’s historic teaching on sexuality, yet live together in an exclusive, committed partnership.

Celibate, LGBT, Christian couple Lindsey and Sarah have been blogging for just over a year now at A Queer Calling—an excellent resource that is popular with many people I know (including myself). Eve Tushnet devotes space to talking about “vowed friendships” in her new book Gay and Catholic (I think Tushnet is talking about something slightly different from couplehood—but this point has been lost on some of her critics). And, late last year, the Anchoress hosted a discussion at Patheos entitled, “Homosexuality, Celibacy and Partnership: An Awkward Question,” in which Ben Conroy asks:

If we accept some of the distinctions these writers [at Spiritual Friendship] have made—that to be gay is not reducible to what the catechism calls “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”, that being gay can be a call to particular, unique kinds of virtue, that the modern, Western notion of sexual and romantic partnership has appropriated kinds of love that historically were also found in non-sexual relationships—doesn’t that open up a space for the idea of a committed, lifelong, celibate partnership between two gay people as being a valid vocation, a holy thing, a place where virtue and love might flourish? [emphasis in original]

Two Friends

I can’t possibly hope to answer that question fully now, so what I offer here are two pointers for further conversation about this issue. One is positive, the other cautionary, since I’ve noticed two common reactions to the idea of chaste couplehood—firstly, censorious condemnations from right-wing Christians, but also, over-enthusiasm from some young gay Christians.

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A Simple Reason to Get Married: “We Were in Love”

Nate and Sara CollinsMost same-sex attracted Christians who embrace a traditional Christian sexual ethic will remain celibate. Some, however, choose to pursue marriage with someone of the opposite sex. We’ve written about such marriages on Spiritual Friendship before, and last week we invited Mike Allen to share his story. This week, we wanted to share an interview with Nate and Sara Collins that was originally done by Preston Sprinkle for his blog, Theology in the Raw.

As Nate makes clear, nobody should use this kind of story to prescribe an opposite-sex marriage for all LGB Christians. When people feel pressured to hide their orientation and enter marriage, the results can be devastating. But there are many different ways of living a life that is faithful and pleasing to God, and we want give voice to that variety. — Ron Belgau

Preston Sprinkle: Thanks, Nate and Sara, for being willing to answer some questions! Sara, we’d first love to hear from you. What did you think when Nate first told you about his sexuality?

Sara Collins: Nate told me about his same-sex attractions about three months after we started dating, and I remember telling him that I was surprised, but not surprised at the same time.  It wasn’t something I had expected to hear from him, but I knew that all of us, myself included, have life experiences that present unique challenges. Everybody has a story, and this was his.  I also had a lot of questions and fear, but I knew that I was already in love with him, and hearing about his same-sex attractions didn’t change the fact that I still wanted to be with him.

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To Celibacy—Part 1

Editor’s Note: When the founders and regular writers at Spiritual Friendship originally got together, we united around the following statement: “God created us male and female, and His plan for sexual intimacy is only properly fulfilled in the union of husband and wife in marriage.” But we also recognize that there are many folks in the church who are still trying to come to grips with traditional Christian sexual ethics and aren’t as certain as we are of what they embrace. Others are pretty sure that we at SF are wrong, and so they are instead upholding what’s come to be called a “Side A” stance (that God blesses monogamous, faithful same-sex sexual partnerships). Those of us who edit and write regularly at SF haven’t changed our views at all, but we do from time to time want to offer a platform to friendly dissenters.

Tim OttoTim Otto (MTS, Duke Divinity School), the pastor for teaching and preaching at Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, is someone who identifies as gay, Christian, and “Side A,” but he’s also celibate. And Tim has remarkably insightful things to say about celibacy—things that we believe our readers would want to hear and think about. So, although we and Tim aren’t in complete agreement, we want to share two recent reflections he’s written on his vow of celibacy with which we are in agreement. We want to share these two posts because we believe they’re compassionate, humane, insightful, and worth pondering. We at SF are grateful for Tim Otto’s friendship, and we commend these posts to you for prayerful consideration. If you are interested in more, you may want to check out his book, Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships. You can also follow him on Twitter at @Tim_Otto or on Facebook— Wesley Hill

I made a vow, six years ago, to be celibate. The night before the vow I went with friends to a trendy Tapas bar in San Francisco. Next to us a group of frat guys were making loud, boisterous toasts. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and soon we were lifting our glasses with them. At one point my friend, the mischievous Michael, hoisted his glass and bellowed, “To Celibacy!”

CC by Quinn Dombrowski SA -2.0Everyone lifted their glasses and yelled, “Hear, hear!” and then those at the next table began muttering about what they had heard. “What?” “What did he say?” they asked each other.

Now, six years later I find myself asking, “What?” “What have I done?” It is not that I want to renounce the vow. I made the vow thoughtfully; I took the vow knowing it was the next faithful step for me in following Jesus. But as some of my married friends testify, the cost of a promise only becomes evident in the keeping of it.

I’m grieving the sacrifices it entails. I feel guilty about this. My church relates to Christians in South Sudan and as I write this I know that hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and are living in refugee camps. At its best, knowledge like that helps me keep a sense of perspective on the losses I feel. But I’ve found that if I’m not honest about my perceived losses, I descend into an oppressive, grey cloud. So I will name them and grieve them:

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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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What’s Next for Love and Marriage?

I published a column in Notre Dame’s Observer today. The Observer has had some debate over marriage in recent weeks, and I thought I would give some thoughts from a gay Catholic perspective:

The first dozen times I came out I cried. For many of my friends, it was the first time they had seen me cry. Ever. A high school friend once told me that I had two emotions: happy, and more happy. She was wrong. I felt a lot of things, but I had to hide them.

Before coming out, many LGBT kids worry that all love is conditional: conditional upon a secret, conditional upon an unmanifested condition, conditional upon being normal. Reading Tyrel London’s viewpoint, “Overcoming Hate” brought back memories of my undergraduate years. Almost no one knew. I suffered. At one point, an evaluator through health services said I may be suffering from major depression, PTSD, social phobia and agoraphobia. The screening urged me to contact a mental health professional. I started looking at graduation requirements at other universities. A semester abroad eventually gave me an escape from Notre Dame without having to answer awkward questions.

The semester away helped me to finally share my secret. Coming out was painful for me. It was painful, not because I was rejected, but because I was accepted. When you spend so much time fearing rejection, acceptance is something that cuts deep into you. It hurts to be loved in the places you’ve been ashamed of. I found acceptance, and I started to accept myself. But even after receiving acceptance from my friends and family, many questions were unanswered. How do I move forward? What does it mean to be gay and Catholic? How do I love?

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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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The Fruit of Traditional Teaching

Photo by MarkusHagenlocher via Wikimedia CommonsOne 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.

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