Christianity and Same-Sex Eros

Nathan O’Halloran has an interesting article over at Vox Nova on the “richness of homosexual relationality.”

O’Halloran points out something I’ve highlighted before, which is that when the Church speaks negatively about “homosexuality,” it is not talking about the same thing we generally mean by “being gay.” When the Catechism speaks about “homosexuality,” it doesn’t even mean the same thing we mean by “homosexuality” in everyday speech (as opposed to its meaning within the technical discourse of Catholic moral theology). The teaching of the Church against homosexuality, as O’Halloran notes, “extends only to same-sex genital acts and does not refer to the sexuality as a whole.” The Bishops of England and Wales make this very clear in their pastoral letter Cherishing Life:

In so far as the homosexual orientation can lead to sexual activity which excludes openness to the generation of new human life … it is, in this particular and precise sense only, objectively disordered. However, it must be quite clear that a homosexual orientation must never be considered sinful or evil in itself.

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Crucifixion and the Experience of Sexual Minorities

Catholic teaching often speaks of the experience of being gay as a “cross” or “trial”:

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination … constitutes for most of them a trial … These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358).

Or, again, in Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons:

What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross. That Cross, for the believer, is a fruitful sacrifice since from that death come life and redemption.

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Escaping the Prison of the Self

During college, I was part of a young men’s prayer group, and our leader, an Anglican priest, once gave us a copy of a letter C. S. Lewis sent in 1956 to Keith Masson, an American reader of his. The topic of the letter was masturbation. Here is an excerpt:

For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself…. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination.

The true exercise of imagination, in my view, is (a) To help us to understand other people (b) To respond to, and, some of us, to produce, art. But it has also a bad use: to provide for us, in shadowy form, a substitute for virtues, successes, distinctions etc. which ought to be sought outside in the real world—e.g. picturing all I’d do if I were rich instead of earning and saving. Masturbation involves this abuse of imagination in erotic matters (which I think bad in itself) and thereby encourages a similar abuse of it in all spheres. After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison.

This is a wise and humane letter, and when my fellow students and I received it from our mentor many years ago, it generated several lines of fruitful conversation. But rereading it now, I’m struck afresh by its particular vantage point: It is written with the assumption, it seems, that its recipient will one day marry. The harem that the lustful young man keeps in his imagination “works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman.” I’m sure Lewis was right to take that approach, but it makes me wonder what he would have said to many of us who are celibate and not planning to be married. If we are going to avoid masturbation, we need a different incentive than the one Lewis offers, since few of us expect to “unite with a real woman” someday.

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A First Response to Austin Ruse

Pope Francis

Last week, Crisis Magazine published a critical profile of my writings by Austin Ruse.

Over the last few days, I’ve spent some time thinking about Ruse’s article and following the comments on his Crisis articles. I’ve also been reading some of his other writings about homosexuality and the reactions he’s triggered in the gay press. (I would not recommend this as a way of spending your Christmas holidays.)

In the midst of all of this, I’ve tried to figure out what to say in response that is charitable and likely to move the conversation forward.

Ruse presents himself as deeply committed to Church teaching on this question. And if we limit the message of the Church to “gay sex is an abomination,” there is no question that Ruse communicates this teaching clearly, with emphasis, and with a certain joie de combat.

However, in an interview published in America Magazine last summer, Pope Francis said:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

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The Line Dividing Good and Evil

In the midst of all the last minute shopping, holiday parties, Christmas music, Santa Clause, and so forth, it’s easy to forget why Jesus came in the first place: to save us from our sin.

In the Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

If evil were something done by evil people to good people, then God would only need to destroy the evil people. But since “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” God had to use a different plan to save us.

I worry that few far too many American Christians have forgotten that this Christmas. Over at Part of a Plan, Zachary Perkins writes:

About a week ago, Phil Robertson was suspended from his family’s show Duck Dynasty for comments he made regarding homosexuality. The fury poured forth from social media like none other. Many Christian are even now organizing boycotts against A&E.

About two to three days later, Uganda passes a bill through it’s legislative body that is now waiting a signature from the President which would imprison homosexuals for life, give 14 years imprisonment to Ugandan citizens that help gays and potentially put some gays to death. Update: The death penalty provision has been shelved, but the long prison terms remain.

It’s been three days since the news from Uganda broke out. I’ve searched through ChristianityToday.com, ChristianPost.com, and CBN.com, but there is still not one mention of the story that Uganda has passed a bill which could put to death gays and lesbians. I even searched ReligionToday.com and instead of finding stories about Uganda’s growing violence towards gays and lesbian people in their community, I saw one story titled “Ugandan Church’s Remarkable Growth”.  Phil Robertson’s story is still plastered all over the front pages of these outlets.

“For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” In either our loud crusades or in our silent complicity, is that the message the world is hearing from Christians this Christmas?

Persons, Not Body Parts

In my post yesterday, I said nothing about the substance of Phil Robertson’s comments to GQ Magazine. I said only that I did not think his comments about gays were bad enough to deserve suspension (I actually think his comments on race are more disturbing, though as far as I know A&E didn’t make an issue of these comments in announcing his suspension).

I deliberately did not address the substance of his comments, because I didn’t want to seem to be joining the people piling on and calling for his head. However, I then spent a lot of time yesterday moderating comments here and at First Things, and became convinced that I needed to say something more about the substance of Robertson’s remarks.

I have no objection to Robertson paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; I’ve quoted those verses on various occasions myself. However, there is a glaring problem in his comments that none of his defenders seem to see.

In pointing this out, I want to be clear that I am responding to his comments in the GQ interview. I do not watch his show, and I do not know him personally. However, since the interview is the source of controversy, and the interview is what many Christians are defending, I think it worthwhile pointing out that at least part of what he said in the interview should have attracted much more objection from Christians than it has. A blanket defense of Robertson’s words is, from a Christian perspective, indefensible.

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On the intoxicant of romantic love

I recently taught William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. A geologic epoch has passed since I first read the play, and I cannot remember my original response. What stands out now is my melancholic detachment from the kind of romance that makes the world feel all at once alive with radiance and susceptible to extinction. I never experienced that upheaval of emotion as an adolescent and only once, in a somewhat convoluted way, as an adult.

As time passes, I wonder if it is possible to reverse the years and see everything with young eyes again. When Juliet appears on the balcony of her house, Romeo does not see a teenager girl in all of her awkward glory. He sees the center of the solar system.

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she
Be not her maid, since she is envious
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

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“Lovelessness of my lovelessness”

I was in California last week to speak at Biola University about spiritual friendship (I’ll post a link to the video when it becomes available), and I got to spend a lot of good time with a friend I’ve known since college days, named Chris. As we were talking one night, Chris pulled out a passage from a sermon by the twentieth-century German theologian Helmut Thielicke that struck me as unusually powerful:

I once knew a very old married couple who radiated a tremendous happiness. The wife especially, who was almost unable to move because of old age and illness and in whose kind old face the joys and sufferings of many years had etched a hundred runes, was filled with such gratitude for life that I was touched to the quick. Involuntarily I asked myself what could possibly be the source of this kindly old person’s radiance. Otherwise they were very common people and their room indicated only the most modest comfort. But suddenly I knew where it all came from, for I saw these two speaking to each other and their eyes hanging upon each other. All at once it became clear to me that this woman was dearly loved. And it was as if she were like a stone that has been lying in the sun for years and years, absorbing all its radiant warmth, and now was reflecting back cheerfulness and warmth and serenity.

Let me express it this way. It was not because she was this kind of a cheerful and pleasant person that she was loved by her husband all those years. It was probably the other way around. Because she was so loved, she became the person I now saw before me.

This thought continued to pursue me and the more it pursued me the more it lost all its merely edifying and sentimental features, until finally they were gone altogether. For if this is true, then I surely must come to the following conclusion. If my life partner or my friend or just people generally often seem to be so strange and I ask myself: “Have I made the right marriage, the right friendship; is this particular person really the one who is suited to me?”—then I cannot answer this question in the style of a neutral diagnosis which would list the reasons for and against. For what happens then is that the question turns back upon myself, and then it reads: “Have I perhaps bestowed too little love upon this other person, that he has become so cold and empty? Have I perhaps caused him to become what perhaps he really has become? The other person, whom God has joined to me, is never what he is apart from me. He is not only bone of my bone; he is also boredom of my boredom and lovelessness of my lovelessness.

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On Types and Degrees of Attraction in Marriage

Several comments on my recent post identified an important question worthy of greater reflection. I wrote, “It [marriage] should only be pursued when there is a strong spiritual, emotional, and physical attraction between two people.” The question: How is a man who is sexually attracted to men to qualify his physical attraction to a woman? Is it tied to spiritual and emotional attraction?

I initially offered the tripartite physical/emotional/spiritual grid for attraction in an attempt to demonstrate that any romantic relationship operates on more than just the physical or sexual level. It seems to me that the nature of attractions themselves are actually much more complicated than this, to the point where trying to make clean distinctions between these three categories may prove problematic. I personally feel this difficulty when I try and describe how my attraction to Christy moved from being primarily emotional to substantially physical, as well as the place that spiritual attraction fit into that process.

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What Does “Sexual Orientation” Orient?

The Professor knew, of course, that adolescence grafted a new creature into the original one, and that the complexion of a man’s life was largely determined by how well or ill his original self and his nature as modified by sex rubbed on together.”

— Willa Cather, The Professor’s House

It’s easy to throw around words like gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, same-sex attracted. But what do these words mean? What is sexual orientation? What does it orient?

The most reliable place to start is not in theory but in experience. And, of course, the experience I know best is my own. So I will start there.

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