I was recently invited to join the Theologues podcast to talk about homosexuality and Spiritual Friendship:
Brandon Peach guest hosts this episode with Stan Patton, Jonathan Balmer and our featured guest Ron Belgau, co-founder of Spiritual Friendship and a gay and celibate Christian on how the Church should approach homosexuality, whether or not homosexuality is a sin, what the Church can do to be present for those who are homosexual in their midst, marriage and our cultural perspective on sex. This was a really enjoyable show and I think you’ll like hearing Brandon passive-aggressively insult our guests as well as about Jonathan’s Lego obsession.
It was a good conversation, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, mostly friendly. Check it out!
Important Legal Notice: While I stand by my recommendations of hard cider, strawberries, and the Boeing 747, as well as my endorsement of Brideshead Revisited and The Cruel Sea, I did not endorse, recommend or in any way promote the Twilight series. I started to tell a story that would have mocked the Twilight series, was cut off by the host, and my intent twisted by the editors. Everyone involved will be hearing from my lawyers.
I became interested in the topic [of friendship] because of my concern for the flourishing of gay people in the Church. As someone who is gay, and who holds to the Church’s traditional view — that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman ordered toward the bearing and raising of children — I am committed to celibacy. And I’ve gotten to know many others who are in my shoes, which means that I’ve become interested in how we might learn to practice a healthy and fruitful celibacy.
C.S. Lewis notes that we in the modern world don’t pay nearly as much attention to friendship as we do to romantic love, but Scripture and the Christian tradition challenge us on that point. You can’t read someone like Aelred of Rievaulx or Bonhoeffer and not conclude that friendship is just as honorable, and worthy of time and energy, as marriage and family. Friendship, too, can be a site of sacrifice and devotion, a place where we give and receive genuine love. And for me, that opens up fresh ways of thinking about celibacy. Outside of a monastic context, as someone who lives and works as an ordinary member of an Anglican parish, I am still called, precisely as a celibate man, to make binding commitments and promises to my fellow Christians.
“For those suffering from broken hearts and homes, from loneliness or the dread of it; and for all called to the generosity of the single or celibate; that they might inspire [name of bride and groom] by their conformity to Christ, and always find in them fiercely devoted friends, and in their house a second home.”
This is a rather odd prayer for American weddings, which are often primarily (or purely) celebrations of a “filling love” between the husband and wife. We often celebrate marital love as a love in which the man and woman are seen as fulfilling each others’ deepest desires, creating an insular community in which the couple is viewed as “enough” for each other. The couple is seen as creating a home for themselves, but not a home for others.
But this couple is not only creating a home for themselves; they also desire a home for their friends. This prayer shows a deliberate resistance to one of the greatest tendencies of erotic love: the tendency for that love to be a raging flame in which the couple is consumed by an exclusive desire for each other, a flame that both impassions the couple and burns those who may come too near to them. We’ve all known people who, upon starting a romantic relationship, will abandon their friends and allow all their time and energy to be consumed by their significant other.
Recently, one of my friends on Facebook pointed me to an article on the Gospel Coalition blog about a man who experiences an intensely deep friendship with another guy. It really is beautiful. The author’s name is Chad Ashby, and in the article, he makes what I would consider to be a correct distinction between deep love between men and homosexual attraction. He says,
To love another man as your own soul (1 Sam. 18:1) is not homosexual love; it is the love of Christ. It is a true willingness to lay down your life for your brothers (1 John 3:16). We must build these kinds of relationships with one another: men who truly love other men.
As I read Ashby’s description of his friendship, I found my heart soaring. It is this type of deep relationship that I long for (and experience with a select few of my close friends). This “Spiritual Friendship”, it seems, is one of the many life-saving graces that God has given to me and many like me in order to successfully live a chaste life.
And yet, as I read the article, I also felt strangely alienated. Ashby makes it very clear that the type of love he is referring to is not homoerotic. But what about when this type of love is also accompanied by a homosexual orientation? What happens when I, as a Christian celibate gay man, experience this type of love, but right alongside of it experience erotic attraction as well? Would Ashby be so quick to tell me to pursue close, intimate friendships? Or would he tell me that it now becomes too dangerous? I’m not sure…
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.
I’ve been working behind the scenes to help organize a small gathering (about which I hope to say more in due course) on the topic of Christianity and homosexuality, and I had an insight today, as I was working on this, that I’m not sure I’ve had before.
I was discussing with the other event coordinators the title for the gathering. We’re pretty sure it’s going to be “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Finding Paths to Ministry.”
But just as the flyers are about to go to press, someone pointed out an ambiguity in the title. It’s not clear whether “ministry” in the subtitle refers to the ministry Christians have towards and for gay Christians or the ministry gay Christians themselves have in the body of Christ (and the world at large). Should we, this person wondered, alter the title so as to remove the ambiguity or should we leave it as it is?
I ended up making the case for leaving it as it is and hoping that the ambiguity will be provocative and productive. But as I stepped away from the email thread and thought about it more, I wondered if maybe this exchange between the other organizers and me was a microcosm of some of the larger patterns of miscommunication and misunderstanding that we in the Christian world have around the issue of homosexuality. Is our goal to try to find a way to help a certain subset of broken, struggling Christians find healing and hope? Or, even if something so limited isn’t our goal, do we often talk in such a way that people might have that impression? Or, alternatively, is our goal to try to encourage gay people in our churches to recognize the way their (our!) “particular mix of the Fall” (as Francis Schaeffer called it) and their equally particular experiences of grace and redemption may have uniquely positioned them to bring gifts to the church and the world that no one else has?
I always like seeing this emphasis in discussions of hospitality:
After seven years of marriage, my wife and I have welcomed numerous friends into our home. Once we decide to host friends for an evening, we usually kick into get ready mode, a fast and furious sprint in the days and hours before our friends arrive. We divide and conquer the to-do list: select a menu, complete grocery shopping, mow the lawn, sweep the floors, run the vacuum, clean the playroom, wipe the bird crap off our lawn chairs (we have lots of trees), set the table, clean the playroom (again), and somehow, someway, pray all that happens before the doorbell rings.
Over the years, that to-do list has prepared us for hosting company, but it has also prevented us from welcoming friends in our home. Unwritten Southern rules of offering hospitality with excellence have affected how often we invite people in our home. ‘We should have the __________s over sometime.’ And then we delay or postpone the invitation. Why? Because the to-do list is always there, the gap between our day-to-day home and the presentable, acceptable-for-hospitality version of our home.
But over the past several months, Emily and I are learning to lay those conventions aside. Why? Because inviting friends into our lives when we are only ‘excellent’ isn’t friendship. Sure, there are still times we like to go all out, spruce up the house and cook a huge, Jamie Oliver style meal. It can be fun and it’s enjoyable to do things well. But that standard of excellence is rarely possible with two children under the age of 3. Friendship isn’t about always being ‘excellent’ with one another. Friendship is about preparing a space for authentic conversation. And sometimes authenticity happens when everything is a bit scruffy.
One view, which has many defenders among Christians who believe that homosexual acts are sinful, is that the term “same-sex attraction” is the clearest and most precise term for describing the experience of those who are, from time to time, tempted to commit homosexual acts.
However, the distinction between carnal and spiritual friendship makes clear that there are different ways of desiring union with a person of the same sex, some of which are virtuous and some of which are vicious. Unfortunately, the term “same sex attraction” introduces unnecessary confusion by lumping all of these desires in under one category.
On April 13, Justin Lee and I did a joint presentation, Let’s Talk about [Homo]sexuality, at Seattle Pacific University. Like previous presentations at Pepperdine University and Gordon College, we shared a bit about our own stories, offered some practical tips for building bridges in the midst of disagreement. We also each presented a brief overview of our own beliefs about Christian sexual ethics, Justin arguing that Christians should bless same-sex marriage, and me arguing that they should not. Rachel Held Evans recently highlighted this as the “Best Dialogue” on sexual ethics.
Jokes are one of the first signs of friendship. You have to really know someone to know when the inappropriate may be appropriate, where your nonchalant exclamation of flagrant partial truths will be understood. Jokes about race may be racism or jesting. This is why it’s usually bad form to make jokes about race in public. Only your friends will know the difference.
The same can be said of gay jokes. In general, I’m not a fan of them. But I’ve also come to appreciate them in some ways. I recently made a joke about how I embodied a gay stereotype with some friends, and in many ways, the joke seemed like the opening of a door, the crossing through a threshold. For me to make this joke appropriately, I needed three things: I needed my friends to know me; I needed to be comfortable with myself; and I needed them to be comfortable with me. If any of these are missing, the joke will be misplaced and just awkward. For me to make the joke and for them to understand it as a joke, as a partial truth, is for a friendship to be realized.