The Questions We Ask

P_questionShould governments recognize civil marriages between two people of the same sex?

This question has been on the minds of many Americans in recent years. Last week it became largely a moot point in the United States, as a result of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. My hope is that we can use this as an opportunity to rethink which questions we focus on.

There are many questions that Christians are asking about all things LGBT. Often, the focus has been on one particular question: Is sexual intimacy between two people of the same sex always sinful?

Clearly, this question is an important one, and its answer has many practical implications. Although I answer this question in the affirmative, I am frustrated when others who share that answer act as though this is the end of the discussion. This answer actually opens the door to quite a few further questions. Continue reading

Hoping for Love

jack-evans-800

My friend Alan Jacobs, a traditional sort of Anglican Christian, wrote this the day after the Obergefell ruling:

Perhaps I am soft on sin, or otherwise deficient in serious Christian formation — actually, it’s certain that I am — but in any case I could not help being moved by many of the scenes yesterday of gay people getting married, even right here in Texas. I hope that many American gays and lesbians choose marriage over promiscuity, and I hope those who marry stay married, and flourish.

I know what he’s saying. I felt that too.

But I was thinking more today, What is that experience? For those of us like me who hold to a Christian view of marriage that contradicts the SCOTUS definition, what does it mean to be moved by scenes of gay marriage?

Well, for starters—and I’m speaking for myself here, not necessarily for Alan—I think that for many, many (not all) gay people in America today, the options have not been (1) belong to a healthy, vibrant Christian community in which celibacy is held in high esteem and deep spiritual friendships with members of the same sex and opportunities for loving service and hospitality abound or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. That has not been the choice facing many gay and lesbian people. Instead, for many (not all) today, the options have been (1) be ostracized (or worse) in church and effectively live without meaningful same-sex closeness of any kind or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. Listen, readers, this is the reality for many gay people who have had a brush with the Christian church in recent years:

So many people have been told (explicitly) that they aren’t welcome, treated as problems rather than persons. They’ve been disowned, had their trust betrayed and their confidences exposed, been kicked out of their homes and their churches, threatened with expulsion. They’ve listened as preachers proclaimed that people like them were destroying the church, that their desires were uniquely and Satanically destructive, that homosexuality by its nature cut them off from God; that their only hope for a faithful Christian life was to repent of their homosexuality, become straight, and get married. All by Christians who claimed that their actions were the result of their faith in Jesus.

And often this abuse—I know labels can obscure complexity but in this case I think naming the abuse is important—is inflicted on people who are trying to live out the full Christian sexual ethic. The treatment they receive would be unjustifiable even if (and even when) they reject Christian teaching on homosexuality, but what’s sort of amazing is that simply self-identifying as gay or even “struggling with same-sex attraction” will earn you condemnation and shame in many Christian communities. Your shame is treated as a sign of faith; any hints of self-acceptance are treated as rejection of God. It should come as little surprise that many of the people who receive this mistreatment eventually reject (what I believe to be) the Christian sexual ethic, and often reject Christianity entirely.

So, I think part of the reason I got a lump in my throat on Friday as I was scrolling through news feeds and seeing gay friends’ pictures pop up on Facebook and Twitter is because I know that for so many of these people, the alternative to their current jubilation has been a gulf of loneliness and marginalization. I persist in believing in the traditional Christian picture of marriage—what G. K. Chesterton once called a “triangle of truisms,” i.e., “father, mother and child”—but I know that when many people depart from it, they’re doing so after undergoing a significant amount of ill-treatment.

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The “Benedict Option” and the Dazzled Pagan Eye

After yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage (about which more here), there’s been a lot of chatter in my Twitter feed and email inbox about the so-called “Benedict Option”—the view that we traditionalist Christians, who continue to believe that marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, are in a kind of cultural exile and that our calling, therefore, is to “a limited, strategic withdrawal… from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church” (as Rod Dreher puts it). In other words, a lot of my orthodox Christian friends are asking what it looks like to be faithful to Christian teaching now that the state’s definition of marriage diverges so widely from the church’s biblical and traditional definition.

One of the earliest posts I read on this approach was by the Duke Divinity School theologian Paul Griffiths, published years ago on his now (alas!) closed-down blog. Probably around 2006 or 2007, from what I can remember, Griffiths wrote this:

In the America of our day, it is about as difficult (or as easy) to make what the Church teaches about marriage comprehensible and convincing (the latter more difficult than the former) to the educated locals as it is to make the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception or the Real Presence so.

If that empirical claim is right… , then the conclusion strongly suggested by it is that the Church should not, at the moment, oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions. Those who have undergone a profoundly pagan catechesis on these questions will believe and behave as pagans do; it would be good for them and for the Church if the Church were not to attempt to constrain them by advocating positions in public policy based upon the view that what she teaches resonates in all human hearts—because it doesn’t, true though it is.

What the pagans need on this matter is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

Griffiths has since the time of this writing apparently shifted his views on same-sex marriage, but I’m not interested in exploring that change here. What I am interested in is Griffiths’ final sentence from this old blog post, which has haunted me ever since I first read it: The church’s calling now, and all the more so now that Griffiths’ hypothetical legalization of same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, is to burnish the practice of marriage until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

On the surface of it, I’m not sure how that strategy would work. How is it that Christians’ purifying of their own male-and-female marriages will work to convince, say, a happily satisfied pagan couple to give up their gay sex and convert to traditional Christianity? How is that, to return to the Benedict Option mentioned above, Christians’ strategic withdrawal from mainstream culture and our commitment to our own re-conversion will prove attractive to an indifferent, or hostile, pagan world?

I’m not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I am increasingly convinced those are precisely the questions to ask.

But let me go ahead take a stab anyway at imagining some answers.

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An Initial Response to SCOTUS: Where Do We Look for the End of Loneliness?

Over at First Things, I’ve contributed to a symposium on yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling. The questions each of us were given to answer were these: “How should we respond to how the Supreme Court has ruled? What’s next?”

My answer started off with a riff on a really affecting gay memoir:

In his memoir Denial: My Twenty-Five Years Without a Soul, the gay journalist Jonathan Rauch says that there once existed a frightened young man tortured with the certainty that there was no place in the world for the love he experienced. That man was Rauch, and there was no home for him—none, that is, until he and his fellow Americans decided he had the right to marry. “They and he have found, at last, a name for his soul. It is not monster or eunuch. Nor indeed homosexual. It is: husband.”

When I read Rauch’s book, that last sentence left a lump in my throat. That receiving the word husband felt to Rauch like the relief of a negative biopsy—“You’re not sick or twisted or crazy; you’re just hindered from giving and receiving love, and now the hindrance is removed”—goes a long way toward explaining the jubilation so many gay and lesbian people feel in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS ruling. Finally, their loves may be dignified not with the anemic moniker friend or partner or the clinical epithet disordered or the disdainful slur pervert but rather with the venerable, ordinary, immediately recognizable words husband or wife.

You can read the rest of what I wrote by clicking through—basically, in my contribution, I fault us Christians, the churches themselves, for our complicity in promoting erroneous views of marriage (“we,” not just “them,” share the blame!)—but I wanted to take the opportunity here to say a little bit more.

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Joseph Ratzinger and Rowan Williams: Contraception and Same-Sex Marriage

Last week, I linked to a post by Abigail Rine at First Things, which argued that Evangelicals tended to trivialize the importance of procreation in their theology of marriage, and that by doing so, they made it more difficult to articulate a coherent objection to same-sex marriage. This post follows up and expands on that discussion.

The Ratzinger Report

In 1985, Cardinal Ratzinger (now the Pope Emeritus) gave a book-length interview to the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori (published as The Ratzinger Report). The interview was wide-ranging, covering most of the challenges facing the Church. Naturally, Messori asked Ratzinger to talk about the challenges facing the Church’s sexual ethic.

In 1989, Rowan Williams, a prominent Anglican theologian who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a lecture to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement that was later published as “The Body’s Grace,” arguing for the legitimacy of gay and lesbian relationships.

Ratzinger and Williams are among the best theologians of their generation, and each went on to lead his respective communion. As is to be expected, they hold differing views on contraception: Williams follows Anglican teaching in believing married couples can use contraceptives, while Ratzinger defends the Catholic teaching that they cannot.

What is interesting, however, is the similarity of their views about how the logic of contraception shapes our theological response to homosexuality: both believe that if you accept the legitimacy of contraception in marriage, it is difficult to argue against same-sex sexual intimacy.

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“Shouting Answers While Running Away”

MattAndersonMatt Anderson is an old friend of mine. We’ve been discussing, arguing (and sometimes joking) about questions around faith, sexuality, and friendship for many years now. He recently tweeted out this quote from his recent book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith:

The fundamentalist Christian stance has sometimes taken shape as an overreaction against a skeptical climate. In the face of intellectual and other challenges, the fundamentalist impulse is to preserve faith at any and all costs. Fundamentalism takes the form of a worry that on some level reason or science will undermine Christianity—which seems to mean ignoring them altogether. In such an environment, “faith” takes the form of holding on to a particular stance as a certainty, such that the possibility of questioning is immediately foreclosed. Such an impulse is often tied to particular views of Scripture or Genesis, but it shouldn’t be. As we have seen play out in culture, the most permissive approaches to Scripture’s teaching about sex sometimes lead to a rigid fundamentalism that endorses a liberal creed. The paradox is that while the fundamentalist’s faith is frequently loud and comes off as very certain, it lacks the prudential confidence to wisely, but truly, face up to the questions that confront it. It is driven by a vague sense of threats that it does not know how to respond to effectively and so ends up being reduced to shouting its answers while running away.

If that whets your appetite, you might be interested in seeing how he tries to address some of the questions Christians face today around same-sex marriage in “The Limits of Dialogue: Q Ideas, Gay Marriage, and Chuck Colson.”

Is there no longer a consensus in evangelicalism?

Image from http://www.citychurchsf.org/Needs

Last week, City Church, a large evangelical church in San Francisco released this letter from its pastor and elders reflecting a shift in their position on same-sex sexual relationships. While they are not the first, nor will they be the last church to do so, their shift is particularly noteworthy because of the church’s original roots in the Presbyterian Church in America, a very conservative evangelical denomination, where it was planted in the model of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in New York City. All of this hits a bit close to home for me as an elder in a city church in the PCA.

What I found especially noteworthy were two points made in the letter justifying the shift—one biblical and one pastoral. The elders at City Church write,

For so long this has been a “case closed” kind of issue for evangelicals. But in recent years, multiple respected evangelical scholars and theologians have begun to wrestle with this and a healthy debate is underway. Asking questions about what the Scriptures say on this issue must always be coupled with asking why the Scriptures say what they do and what kind of same-sex activity is being addressed. Scholars and leaders who have previously been united in their interpretations are coming to different conclusions. This does not mean that your view must change, but it does counsel humility with how we each hold our views. Given the status and variety of these opinions, what has become clear to us is that there is no longer clear consensus on this issue within the evangelical community.

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More On Coming Out Part 2: How Open Should You Be?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m often asked by other sexual minority Christians how open they should be about their sexuality. There is no single answer for everyone, so I would like to offer some reflections on the process of discernment. Towards that end, in my previous post I discussed my own story of getting to where I am today. In this post I will offer my advice for others, using the second person for convenience.

Rainier Waterfall Crossing

One thing I want to point out from the beginning is that there are very few cases where I’d say you are actually obligated to discuss your sexuality. About the only case I can think of is that your spouse or even potential spouse, if you have one, needs to know as early as possible. Otherwise, it’s ultimately your own decision how widely you want to open up. As I’ve discussed before, I think you really ought to open up to a few people for your own good, but it’s your decision how broadly to do that.

For my straight readers, I should offer the aside that it’s really important to respect a sexual minority person’s choices about who to come out to. If someone has trusted you with a secret about their sexuality, you need to keep it secret. If you think he or she would do well to open up to a particular person or group, you can encourage him or her to do so, but never do the sharing yourself without permission.

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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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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