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?
I’ve been following the #ERLC2014 hashtag on Twitter, which links me to updates on the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s 2014 conference on the theme of homosexuality.
Many of the folks tweeting have been voicing frustration, anger, and hurt over what’s being said at the conference. I haven’t been watching any of the livestream, but I imagine some of the frustration is warranted. But, then again, I also imagine much of the hostility to the conference has to do with dismay that the SBC still holds the view of marriage that I do—which is that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman and any sexual activity outside of that context is prohibited for Christians. In other words, I imagine many people’s frustration boils down to (a) incredulity that the SBC still holds this view and (b) fervent desire that it would change.
What I was asking myself today, though, was—once again—why the “traditional view of marriage” provokes so much anger in our culture. I can certainly imagine some legitimate reasons for it to do so, since the people expressing that view have often been hypocritical, upholding “traditional marriage” while also getting divorced at roughly the same rates as more “liberal” folk and behaving with shocking insensitivity toward LGBT people. (The latter is something I know from personal experience, having grown up in the SBC trying to keep my own same-sex desire secret.) But, even granting that, why is it that so many people in our culture, even friends of mine who might otherwise be very sympathetic with much of what the ERLC stands for, are so up in arms about Christianity’s traditional stance on gay sex?
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.
My copy of Charles Marsh’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer will be dispatched to my house soon, so for now I’m making do by reading John Stackhouse’s fine review of it. Someone on Twitter sent it to me the other day, with this tag: “Bonhoeffer was a celibate gay Christian. Thoughts?” Intrigued, I landed on this paragraph from Stackhouse:
Bonhoeffer’s former student, longtime confidante, and first biographer, [Eberhard] Bethge comes through in this book as a significant character—but chiefly as the object of Bonhoeffer’s increasingly lavish affections, the expressions of which in actions, gifts, and words seem to fascinate Marsh perhaps more than they will every reader. Marsh never once refers to homosexuality and only once or twice refers to sexual desire at all, but he frequently paints Bonhoeffer as the ardent suitor while Bethge wants to remain “just friends.” What Marsh doesn’t ever do is explore directly whether a same-sex friendship without sexual desire can be this intense, even erotic in the sense of deep desire for closeness that can become (excessively) possessive. Bonhoeffer, who grew up without a close friend and whose twin Sabine gets married rather young, seems lonely until he meets Bethge, and then pours himself into that friendship as a river surges through a channel rather too small for it. Marsh defends the chastity of the two men, but one wonders if Marsh might usefully have hinted less and ruminated more. (Remember, it isn’t as if Marsh is overdelicate about such themes. He is quite willing to detail and pronounce upon the sexual sins of both Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, and to do so without the scholarly cover of actual citation of sources.)
I can’t tell what Stackhouse intends with the sentence just before the parenthesis. Is he implying that if Marsh had ruminated a bit more, he might have concluded that a pursuit of friendship as intense as Bonhoeffer’s must have been fueled by sexual desire (thus lending credence to the idea that Bonhoeffer was gay, albeit celibate)? Or is Stackhouse rather suggesting that more interrogation on Marsh’s part would have shown our suspicion of Bonhoeffer’s being gay to be a post-gay-rights-era preoccupation, all too ready to classify people as either “gay” or “straight” and not attuned enough to the complexity, even for “straight” people, of desire in simple friendship? As I say, I can’t tell, but I’d like to continue the conversation.
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention is hosting a Summit from April 21 to 23, and the topic is “The Gospel and Human Sexuality.” Last night, after the panel had discussed “The Gospel and Homosexuality,” I was scrolling through tweets from people I follow who had been listening in to the livestream. You can access the tweets here, with the hashtag #erlcsummit, and I’ll just note that Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s are the most informative.
It’s probably definitely unwise to make an assessment of a conference based on a Twitter stream, and I’ll almost certainly regret writing this post tomorrow, but a couple of things struck me as especially comment-worthy. (Apparently the video sessions will be available to watch after the summit concludes, which means that I won’t get to them for another day or two.)
Jesus brings the Sermon on the Mount to a close with this illustration:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7:24-27
Jesus lays out what’s of vital importance for His followers to understand: What you build your life upon matters, and what you do matters. The foundation upon which we’re built will shape our convictions and values, which determine what kinds of people we become. When I think about the foundation a person is built upon, I often think about identity. An identity is what internally sets someone apart from others—what defines a person—and it often says something about their values and convictions. It’s how we say to ourselves and others: “this is who I am,” and Jesus seems to be saying that if “who we are” is rooted in anything other than Him and His teaching, then (like the foolish man) we’re building our lives on sand.
I haven’t yet been able to read Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert cover to cover, but I do want to highlight one portion of it that I’ve been thinking about recently in relation to our project here at Spiritual Friendship. Towards the end, Butterfield writes:
What good Christians don’t realize is that sexual sin is not recreational sex gone overboard. Sexual sin is predatory. It won’t be “healed” by redeeming the context or the genders. Sexual sin must simply be killed. What is left of your sexuality after this annihilation is up to God. But healing, to the sexual sinner, is death; nothing more and nothing less.
From the context, I think it’s clear that Butterfield is making an anti-Pelagian point. She’s saying that what we sexual sinners need is not a touch-up operation that amounts to little more than a project of moral self-improvement. What we need, instead, is total, absolute surrender—death to the entirety of our old ways of thinking and living, and rebirth on God’s terms. So, for instance, she goes on to say that a lot of young Christians think their pornography addictions will be cured if they can just get married. (A misreading of 1 Corinthians 7:9, I might add.) But no, Butterfield says, “Marriage does not redeem sin. Only Jesus can do that.” The project of self-salvation, even with something sanctified like marriage, is doomed from the get-go.
Now, the reason I’ve been thinking about this is that it could be read as antithetical to the work we’re trying to do here at SF. We say things like this: Our same-sex love can “express itself as chaste friendship or mystical approach to God rather than as gay sex.” Which could imply that we think our being gay shouldn’t be surrendered to daily death so much as it should be reinterpreted or redeemed or reformed.
During the debate over Galileo, some theologians appealed to verses of Scripture to “prove” that Galileo’s sun-centered model of the solar system could not be correct. For example, Psalm 93:1 says, “the world is established; it shall never be moved.” Along with 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalm 96:10, and Psalm 104:5, this was taken to show that Galileo’s claim that the earth moved around the sun was contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures. Ecclesiastes 1:5, which says, “The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises,” was interpreted to show that the sun does move. Taken together, these were thought by some to provide a conclusive biblical refutation of Galileo’s heliocentric arguments.
The problem with this kind of interpretation is that these interpreters were mistaking phenomenological language, which describes appearances, with ontological language, which tells us about things as they really are. The sun does appear to rise and set, but this is caused by the earth’s rotation, and not by the motion of the sun. The earth appears fixed and immovable, but in fact, it rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun.
One of the most persistent mistakes made by critics of Spiritual Friendship is the assumption that when we use any language that they don’t like (most commonly, though not limited to, the word “gay”) to describe our experiences, we are using that language to make ontological claims.
Austin Ruse, the President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, is running a series of critical investigations on the work of Spiritual Friendship (or on the “New Homophiles,” as he calls us) over at Crisis Magazine. His most recent article, “The New Homophiles and Their Critics,” takes a look at the arguments of some of the more seasoned critics of our ideas such as Daniel Mattson and Michael W. Hannon. At the end, Ruse poses an important question:
Your 14-year-old son feels different from the other guys at school … He confides this to a counselor who asks him about his sexual orientation. Your son says that maybe the difference he feels is that he is gay …
Now, do you want your son to talk to Chris Damian, one of the New Homophiles who has said he would tell that young man to “Seek to draw yourself more fully into the Church and to discern how this might be a gift in your life and in others’ lives.”
Or do you want him to meet Daniel Mattson and Father Paul Scalia who would tell the boy, “You are not your sexual inclinations. You are not ‘gay.’ What you are is a man and a Son of God.”
At first blush there seems to be very little difference between the two, but as you gaze more closely at all that is packed into the New Homophile Proposition, you realize the difference is immense and may be profoundly harmful.
Over on his blog, Mark Shea attempts to answer a reader’s question about LGBT people “defining themselves” by their sexuality. After recognizing that some people (heterosexuals included) do, in fact, make their sexuality the most defining characteristic of their lives, there is a difference between acknowledging one’s sexuality and being defined by it:
We should, however, be cautious about assuming that simply because somebody frankly acknowledges that they are gay that they are making it the central fact of their life. I know any number of gay folk who live in fidelity to the Church’s moral teaching, but who don’t shy away from saying frankly that they are gay, that their appetites are what they are, and that this does not mean they have to indulge those appetites. I think this is simply being honest, as when an alcoholic says frankly that he has a disordered attraction to alcohol or a glutton is frank about his tendency to desire to eat too much. I think that some Catholics, uncomfortable with so much as hearing aboutthis particular disordered appetite can be swift to shush all discussion as “defining oneself by one’s sexuality” in the way a teetotaling fundamentalist tries to declare all discussion of alcohol sinful.
I think this is unwise since it communicates to the faithful homosexual that it’s not enough for him to be obedient to Holy Church. He has to repent even his temptations. The Church does not tie up for us the heavy burden of guilt for our temptations, only our sins. Indeed, the Church tells us that when we meet the challenge of our temptations with obedience we are being virtuous and our Father is pleased with us. No small part of why homosexuals get the message that God hates them is this curious double standard, reserved only for them, which says that when a heterosexual resists the temptation to commit fornication or adultery, he is a heroic saint, but when a homosexual successfully resists temptation he is still guilty of feeling tempted and must not speak of it lest he incur the charge of “defining himself by his sexuality”. I think that is a perfect formula for inducing despair in the homosexual who genuinely wishes to follow Christ.