Several months ago, I got into a discussion with Wes Hill and Matt Anderson about Wes’s post, Is Being Gay Sanctifiable? At the time, I drafted a post in response to that conversation, but did not have time to polish it for publication. In light of the more recent discussions of language (including Wes’s On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment and Matt’s Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry), I decided to revise and expand the draft.
I want to reflect on what the word “gay” is about—that is, what experience or set of experiences does it point to? (I also want to ask similar questions about “friendship.”) But before doing so, I want us to think about a very different example: the word “ship.” Consider Eustace Scrubb’s response when he found himself magically transported into Narnia and embarked on the Dawn Treader. He wrote in his diary,
It’s madness to come out into the sea in a rotten little thing like this. Not much bigger than a lifeboat. And, of course, absolutely primitive indoors. No proper saloon, no radio, no bathrooms, no deck-chairs. I was dragged all over it yesterday evening and it would make anyone sick to hear Caspian showing off his funny little toy boat as if it was the Queen Mary. I tried to tell him what real ships are like, but he’s too dense.
For Eustace, “ship” referred to a modern ocean modern liner like the Queen Mary; while for the Narnians, “ship” meant a small sailing vessel like the Dawn Treader. The word is the same, and certain key elements of the concept are the same, but what the word is about is different.
MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.
When, as a boy, I read Luke’s description of the Apostle Paul’s journey on a “ship” (in Acts 20-21), I imagined him getting on board something like the MV Coho (above), which I rode several times a year from Port Angeles to Victoria and back again. When I got a little older and realized that Paul had been on a sailing ship, my mental imagery tended to be drawn from the ships of the Age of Discovery, because that was the kind of sailing ship I most frequently encountered in my non-Biblical reading.
Despite encountering criticism, the LGBT community is finding greater acceptance, even in religious circles
Josh Gonnerman and Eve Tushnet, both of Washington, are shown on Oct. 22 in the District. Gonnerman and Tushnet are gay and choosing the path of celibacy. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
The Washington Post has recently published a story by Michelle Boorstein that talks about celibate gay Christians:
When Eve Tushnet converted to Catholicism in 1998, she thought she might be the world’s first celibate Catholic lesbian.
Having grown up in a liberal, upper Northwest Washington home before moving on to Yale University, the then-19-year-old knew no other gay Catholics who embraced the church’s ban on sex outside heterosexual marriage. Her decision to abstain made her an outlier.
“Everyone I knew totally rejected it,” she said of the church’s teaching on gay sexuality.
Today, Tushnet is a leader in a small but growing movement of celibate gay Christians who find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they’re celibate. She is busy speaking at conservative Christian conferences with other celibate Catholics and Protestants and is the most well-known of 20 bloggers who post on spiritualfriendship.org, a site for celibate gay and lesbian Christians that draws thousands of visitors each month.
Check out the whole story.
Today is World AIDS Day. According to UNAIDS, over 75 million people have been infected by HIV, and over 35 million of those have died. Behind each of those lives and deaths is a story. I thought I’d share this story (originally written in 2002), from my friend John Corvino. It’s a reminder that—despite protease inhibitors and drug cocktails and “the end of the plague”—AIDS still kills:
Last month I learned of the death of an ex-partner. It’s an odd feeling to lose to death someone whom one has already lost to painful separation. But it’s a loss nevertheless.
Robert and I met as graduate students in philosophy at the University of Texas. I had just “escaped” from Notre Dame, and I had high hopes for Austin. It was 1991: Ann Richards was governor, and the UT student-body president was an African-American lesbian socialist. (“Toto, we’re not in South Bend anymore.”)
Robert approached me at the new students’ party. Physically, he wasn’t my type, but there was something about him I found mesmerizing. He had a keen intellect and a razor wit. We got into an argument during that party—the good kind, the kind that philosophers thrive on. We quickly became friends, and then something more.
The relationship is hard to explain to people who didn’t know us (and even to some who did). It was passionate but not sexual; full of conflict yet strangely comfortable. The contradictions suited us. Most people were unaware that we didn’t have sex, which was fine with us. (How many of us know the details of our partnered friends’ sex lives?) Some would say the relationship didn’t “count”, but it counted to us, and that was what mattered.
He had a brilliant sense of humor. Robert, who had grown up in Odessa, often poked fun at his West Texas roots. He used to steal phone-message pads from the philosophy department secretary and then leave notes in my office mailbox, often beginning with “Robert Ramirez, of Paris, New York, and Odessa, called…”
Read the rest of the article on John’s site >>
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.