The Cloud of Witnesses

Copyright Gregg Webb 2012

Copyright Gregg Webb 2012

There are a number of factors that contribute to my conservative views as a celibate-gay Christian. The traditional view of marriage that I’ve held my whole life rests on several things and goes beyond the main passages of scripture that are so often brought up. Scripture is of course foundational for many of my beliefs regarding my sexuality as are the consistent teachings of the Church for over two millennia; they aren’t however the strongest day to day reminders of why I’ve chosen celibacy as my path. From my Eastern Orthodox upbringing I’ve grown up with the stories of countless men and women who have followed Christ’s call to take up their cross, deny themselves and follow after him. These saints, and especially the ascetics, are my daily reminder of the well-worn path I pursue.

Certainly many of these saints followed celibacy, often in a monastic context, but it’s not for that reason alone that I feel convicted in my own celibacy. Rather, it is that each and every one of them saw absolutely nothing as being of greater value or worth than Christ. There was nothing exceptionally radical, or out of place in their belief that in their pursuit of Christ everything was on the table, including their very life. Because of their witness, and their lives which we listen to and sing about daily in the Church the idea that surrendering my own desire for romantic intimacy and the erotic expression of that desire was something too great to be asked to give seems less out of place or extreme. That isn’t to diminish the weight and the calling of the Church and of community to help each other bear whatever burden they may be called to endure, but rather helps me place my own suffering and my own self-denial in the ancient tradition of the saints of the Church.

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From the Outside to the Inside in Judaism and Christianity

Via David Mills, here’s something many of you may find provocative:

A respected Conservative clergyman, Gil Steinlauf, senior rabbi of Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation wrote his congregants a moving letter shortly after Yom Kippur. In it, he announced that he and his wife of 20 years, Batya, would be divorcing. That alone would have been surprise enough for his congregation, considering the model marriage, complete with three children, that he and his wife (also a Conservative rabbi and the head of an office of the local Jewish Community Relations Council) had forged. The Steinlaufs’ union had earned the respect and admiration of Adas Israel’s members.

What compounded the jolt, though, was the revelation of what had brought about the decision to divorce. In the husband’s words: “I have come to understand that I am gay.”

Even as an Orthodox rabbi and someone who considers living a homosexual life to be a sin, I could not help but feel anguished by the couple’s “heartbreaking decision,” in Rabbi Steinlauf’s words. He went on to characterize his marriage as one in which he and Batya, a wonderful woman… shared a love so deep and real,” in which, together, they “built a loving home with our children founded principally on the values and joys of Jewish life and tradition.”

Reading those words, I hurt for the husband, I hurt for the wife and I hurt for the children.

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Against Christian Triumphalism

I had a piece published yesterday over at First Things on how we might avoid moralistic striving in the same-sex marriage debates in the church. Drawing on the work of the twentieth-century French Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac, I talked about the need for grace to pervade the way we talked about sexual holiness:

Sexual abstinence is not an end in itself, [Mauriac] says, undertaken to demonstrate one’s own moral heroism. Our purity of mind and body is rather, firstly, for the sake of love for Christ—“His love does not allow any sharing”—and, secondly, for the sake of those whom Christ loves, for the sake of honoring the sanctity of the bodies and souls to whom we are attracted. “We have to be pure,” Mauriac writes, “in order to give ourselves to others, for Christ’s love is love for others.”

And the only way such purity is achievable in Christian lives is not by white-knuckled effort but by receiving a love whose sweetness somehow exceeds what we naturally think we want. “Christ,” Mauriac concludes, “is ready to substitute Himself in a sovereign and absolute way for that hunger and thirst, to substitute another thirst and another hunger.” The Sermon on the Mount is more carrot than pitchfork: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” The allure of the beatific vision, not the threat of punishment, is what Jesus uses to motivate the ascetic regime.

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You Can’t Be a Virgin Alone

I was talking a bit this week with Todd Billings, who is a professor of Reformed theology at Western Seminary in Holland Michigan, and he passed along an essay he wrote when he was single and in his late twenties. The piece is a reflection of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity, and I found it very engaging.

A sample:

Gregory’s vision of virginal life is one of fullness, not absence. “The more we come to know the wealth of virginity the more we have disdain for the other life, having learned from the comparison how many precious things it lacks.” Divided love — non-virginal love — is poor love.

Indeed, while Seinfeld’s Elaine would be horrified at the thought, Gregory calls attention to the “freedom of virginity.” The virginal soul, its attachments rooted in God, has freedom from “greed, anger, hatred, the desire for empty fame and all such things.” Since the virginal soul does not seek after these other loves, it is not a slave to them. It is free to be a bride of Christ.

Further, for Gregory, virginity is not a curse or an accident, but a “gift” with great “grandeur.” It does not result from God’s failing to provide someone to love, but from “grace.” The virgin anticipates the time when there will be “no distance between himself and the presence of God.” To experience a foretaste of eternal life with God is far from an accident.

We have grown accustomed to seeing virginity in terms of lack — an empty bed, a Valentine’s Day spent alone. But Gregory reverses the imagery. Virginity is a special foretaste of the divine presence, an anticipation of the resurrected state where believers are especially suited to experience this presence. Moreover, for Gregory, virginity is an “ally” and a friend. It accompanies us on the Christian path of rejecting the worldly loves that threaten to displace our love for God. For the Christian, virginity is not about loneliness. Indeed, for the Christian, it is impossible to be a virgin alone.

The whole essay is thoughtful and accessible—do read it all—and it’s doubly encouraging to me to think of it originally being published in the ecumenical magazine Regeneration Quarterly, which had a sizable evangelical readership when it was still in print. Sometimes working against their own history and current church cultures, many Reformed and more broadly Reformational evangelicals whom I know want to try to rediscover and honor celibacy in their churches today. May their tribe increase.

You’re Gay and God Loves You

Just one brief comment on the Christian musician Vicky Beeching’s coming out.

I’ve met Vicky once, when she attended my confirmation in the Church of England at St. John’s College, Durham, where I was based at the time. I was touched that she wanted to attend, and I was grateful for her warm friendliness.

Sean Doherty tweeted yesterday morning after the story was published, “Respect to @vickybeeching today – should not be but *is* still hard to come out and praying for you that you are overwhelmed with support.” I think that’s just exactly right, regardless of where your convictions about sexual ethics fall.

It’s easy for me now, as someone who writes and speaks publicly and frequently about these matters, to forget how difficult it was at first to talk with anyone about my sexuality. Despite the fact that I had a loving, close-knit family, an especially committed group of friends in high school, and an unusually sensitive, thoughtful youth pastor, it still took me until college to tell someone about my feelings. And even then, I was deathly afraid of what my peers would think.

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Mourning the Loss of My Friend Chris

Here’s a more immediately personal post than I often write.

I’ve just lost one of my best friends, and I thought it would be appropriate to share here at Spiritual Friendship the remembrance I wrote of him. It’s been posted over at Books & Culture, and you can read the whole thing there. For now, an excerpt:

When I stepped off the train in Oxford, Chris was standing there in the station waiting for me, his face breaking into its characteristic goofy grin when I landed on the platform, but he didn’t stay still longer than it took to give me a tight hug. He pivoted as soon as he released my shoulders, grabbed one of my bags, and sped toward the rental car. We were already late for the adventure he had planned. We were going to drive from Oxford to the little village of Wolvey in Warwickshire, roughly 115 kilometers away, to look for a tombstone.

When Chris was growing up in Oregon, his family employed an Englishman named William Alcott Bailey as a part time gardener and handyman. Chris learned the value of hard work, he said, from Bailey. He learned how to work with his hands and see a yard project through to its finish, but, even more, he learned how to take ownership and pride in his work. He learned those things, specifically, from Bailey. And now, in between his other responsibilities in the UK, lecturing and researching for a new edition of one of C. S. Lewis’ books, he wanted to go looking for Bailey’s grave, as a way of paying tribute to someone that, in retrospect, he viewed as essential to the arc of his childhood. He knew Bailey had spent his childhood in Wolvey, but that was about it. Whatever leads he had had petered out there. We’d just have to look for the tombstone, assuming that Bailey would have wanted to be buried where he grew up.

I wish I could capture the simultaneity of Chris’ fiercely serious fixation on this task and his boyish, smiling enthusiasm for being on a quest. It wasn’t unusual for him—that combination of zeal and playfulness is what had made me want to be friends with him from the beginning—but it was what made Chris unique. And I wasn’t the only one who loved him for it, but, nonetheless, I treasured the feeling that this particular glimpse into it was mine. This was a special trip for just the two of us, a way for me to learn more about my friend’s upbringing and to delight in what made him happy.

We never found William Alcott Bailey’s grave. We traipsed around the overgrown C of E parish cemetery, uncovering some Baileys that Chris was convinced were his Bailey’s relations, but as far as we could tell, there was no “William Alcott.” Undeterred, we went to the pub anyway to toast him. At the Blue Pig just down the road—I still remember sitting across from Chris at our table by the window, with the glint of summer evening sun caught in our pint glasses—we hoisted our ales “to William Alcott Bailey and his good memory.” Afterwards, we lit pipes and walked the length of the empty fields behind the pub and talked. The conversation was vigorous, spirited, meandering, as it always was with Chris, with both of us talking over each other at various junctures, stalled only by moments of concentration for an occasional relight.

Chris later said that trip to Wolvey cemented our friendship. I inwardly beamed whenever I heard him tell the story—as I did many times in the intervening years—to others.

Chris was for many years the director of The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College and he was for the past year professor of theology at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He died last Thursday evening, July 10. He was an exemplary scholar, teacher, mentor, and friend to many. But more than that, he was a Christian who believed in the hope of the resurrection. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Reading Sarah Coakley

One of the most significant books I’ve read recently (or just anytime, period) that has to do with gay Christian whatnot is Sarah Coakley’s new God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’. You can read a very short version of some of its main lines of argument here, and, if you’re interested, you can read my take on the book over at First Things for low price of $1.99 (or why not subscribe?)!

Joshua Gonnerman has already mentioned Coakley’s project here at SF, but I wanted to mention it one more time and draw your attention to a new review of it from Beth Felker Jones. I mention this because I think Felker Jones’ critique of Coakley’s book is especially relevant for the conversations we’re having here at SF.

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“His Grief Became a Light to Us”

A reader of my book Washed and Waiting, in which I talk at some length about Henri Nouwen’s life as a celibate gay priest, just wrote me an email about how that part of Nouwen’s life intersected with his own. With my reader’s permission, I’d like to share a portion of his email:

I was his student at Yale, working on my Ph.D. when I talked someone into letting his masters level, divinity school lecture course count as a Ph.D. class. I was unable to profit much from the course due to my biases and the form my brokenness took at the time, but I did get into one conversation with him about [John] Calvin’s spirituality after a class. My profs that year featured one luminary after another—Luke Johnson, Sidney Ahlstrom, Conrad Russell (son of Bertrand), etc.—so I wasn’t awestruck, but as he invited me to walk back to his office, then to stay a while, I felt that I never so completely had the attention of someone who didn’t know me at all. He listened with a stunning focus—as if I were the only person in his world, that nothing could be more important than my shallow comments and questions. At the end, he encouraged me a little and gave me a copy of one of his books, with a lovely inscription. No one knew of his same-sex attraction, but some of us felt that he suffered from some wound that, coupled with his holiness and insight, expressed itself in his marvelous tenderness. So his grief, handled with maturity, became a light to us—a model for us all.

I was greatly moved by this remembrance, and I share it here as a reminder of what grace our gay Christian lives are capable of. Even in the midst of longing and yearning like Nouwen’s, we are given gifts that we may pass on to others.

Faith and Seeking Understanding

Saint_Augustine_Portrait

Botticelli: St. Augustine

Christian faith is not the conclusion of an argument: it begins in some sense or other in a personal encounter with God. Some people experience this encounter in a dramatic way, for others, it is much gentler and quieter. But we believe because we believe God, who, in some way, speaks to us. This belief is more a matter of personal trust in the God who loves us and has revealed himself to us than it is the conclusion of an intellectual investigation.

We are created in God’s image, and God is love. Our faith is thus best nurtured by experiencing God’s love through prayer, worship, and the sacraments, by acts of service or contemplation that we do out of love for God, and by Christian community, where we love others and experience and are nurtured in love.

God also knows and understands everything, and our desire to understand Him and the world He has created is part of His image in us. Although belief and trust are primarily personal responses to God’s love for us, we also want to understand what we believe and who we trust. There are, moreover, parts of Christian teaching—like the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the virgin birth—that are difficult to understand. And Christian faith also gives rise to difficult questions: for example, if God is all knowing and all powerful, and He desires what is good for everyone, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?

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Building Bridges at Pepperdine and Seattle Pacific

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.

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