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?
Over at the Gospel Coalition, Corey Widmer has a post that reads like it could have appeared here at Spiritual Friendship. There are at least two points he makes that are especially relevant to our discussions here.
The first has to do with the church as an alternative plausibility structure:
I believe one of the most serious callings of the church in our age is to create new, countercultural plausibility structures that make the demands of the gospel plausible, practical, and attractive. If a gay friend is going to embrace a life of chastity for Jesus Christ, she must be able to look into the future and see not only the loss and pain but also the possibility that a real fulfilling life can be lived. If we don’t work at this task, if we don’t create the kinds of communities in which the countercultural lifestyle we’re advocating is supported and upheld, we’ll continue to see people choose plausibility structures that make more sense and have greater support from the culture.
Earlier this month, the California State University system decided to stop recognizing InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as a campus organization. This was far from being the first time that a campus ministry has faced such a challenge. Perhaps most famously, several years ago Hastings College of the Law withdrew recognition from the Christian Legal Society, resulting in a 2010 Supreme Court decision (Christian Legal Society v. Martinez) in favor of Hastings. InterVarsity itself has previously faced a number of challenges at a number of institutions such as Vanderbilt, SUNY Buffalo, and others.
In several of these decisions, such as those involving InterVarsity at SUNY and CLS at Hastings, the controversy specifically surrounded sexual orientation. The school administrators believed that allowing the relevant ministries to maintain their leadership requirements discriminated against gay students. In other cases, such as the recent California State decision, only discrimination with respect to religious beliefs was cited. However, this has not stopped some commentators from arguing that discrimination with regard to sexual orientation was in view. In this piece, I will focus primarily on the sexual orientation aspect, even though it is not always the most important issue at play.
It is commonly argued that holding students to a traditional sexual ethic is really an excuse to exclude gay, lesbian, and bisexual people from full participation in the group. If that were true in an uncomplicated sense, I should have lost my position in 2011 as a leader of the graduate chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at UNC Chapel Hill. During a meeting that year, I brought up my experience being sexually attracted to people of both sexes.
However, this had no impact on my status as a leader. You see, I was convicted at the time, and have remained convicted, that sexual behavior between members of the same sex is forbidden within Scripture. I was also (and still am) committed to living within the bounds of that teaching.
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.”
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).
Today, Slate Magazine‘s Outward blog features a new article by Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart on celibate gay Christians. It’s a respectful, thoughtful piece, and I appreciated my conversations with the author, who I think “got” the key focus of Spiritual Friendship:
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.
Be sure to check out the whole article.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer – 1923
I am not a scholar of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have not read a book-length biography of the man. And my exposure to his writing is limited to Letters and Papers from Prison, the unabridged version (800 pages)!
With those prefatory remarks out of the way, let me say that I am intrigued by how two reviewers of a recent biography have responded to a claim about Bonhoeffer’s homosexual disposition. Charles Marsh, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, has authored, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My goal here is not to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Mr. Marsh’s claim, but to ask why we are making much ado about Bonhoeffer’s alleged sexuality, which may be some-thing or no-thing at all.
Over at the Gospel Coalition, Thabiti Anyabwile has a thoughtful post asking whether Christians are prone to over-compensate for cultural losses, which echoes some of the concerns over politicizing the Church’s witness that Aaron Taylor raised earlier this week. Anyabwile writes:
Or consider the current debates regarding same-sex issues. The church is perceived as “losing” on that issue and a good number of leaders are exercised about it. I’m not making light of their concerns and I share much of it. But when well-meaning leaders fall prey to the subtle temptation to make state legislation granting same-sex marriage rights a report card on the church, strange things can happen. Like the pastor who ceases his ministry of regular exposition to do a series on homosexuality. The series isn’t so much an exposition of key texts or a sensitive approach to discipleship in this area, but a jeremiad against “the culture” and a desperate ringing of the church bell to alert everyone to the impending doom. Public policy figures prominently in the sermons and in after church discussions. The pastor gets exercised. The church gets politicized. People get ostracized–and not just those who may be addressing same-sex desires in the course of their Christian discipleship.
The whole post is thoughtful, and offers some good practical advice for how to approach controversial issues in an informed, pastorally sensitive way. Since I criticized an earlier post by Anyabwile (and Spiritual Friendship also published a critique by Kyle Keating), I think it’s important to highlight when I think he really gets it right.
It’s a sad fact about the Internet that posts expressing criticism can easily go viral, while posts pointing out good thinking rarely get the same level of attention. Still, I want to do what I can to give credit where credit is due.
Last year, Joseph Bottum wrote an essay for Commonweal entitled, “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” With a title like this coming from the pen of a former editor of First Things, Bottum’s article was almost certain to generate voluminous commentary. And it did.
One year later, the commentary continues, with the most recent issue of Commonweal including responses to Bottum’s thesis from two high-profile Catholic journalists. Ross Douthat—a columnist for the New York Times—criticizes Bottum for going too far. Douthat argues that if Catholics “are to continue contending in the American public square,” then “there is no honest way for the church to avoid stating its position on what the legal definition of marriage ought to be.” Jamie L. Manson, on the other hand, thinks that Bottum does not go far enough. She argues that gay couples should not only be allowed by the secular government to contract civil marriages, but that Catholic teaching should change to recognize “the potential of a gay or lesbian couple to fulfill the requirements of sacramental marriage.”