Dietrich Bonhoeffer – 1923
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.
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.
… there’s a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth, and a seventh…
A rather remarkable video has been making the rounds lately. “The Third Way“, produced by Blackstone Films, features the voices of gay Christians who have accepted their sexuality and have sought to live according to traditional Christian teachings. The video navigates between two poles often presented for gay Christians: either repress sexuality for Christianity, or give up Christianity for sexuality. A “third way” is presented, in which the speakers come to love and accept both parts of themselves, seeking to live chaste lives of integration, rather than a fragmented choice.
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.)
Yoweri Museveni recently based his decision to sign the bill outlawing homosexual expression in Uganda on the fact that he understood homosexuality to be largely influenced by environmental factors. If homosexuality could be proven to be genetic, then he said he would consider not signing the bill. But if research pointed to the environment, then he believed they could make changes in the environment to suppress homosexuality. I personally don’t understand how proof that it’s caused by environmental factors would mean it can be eradicated, as it seems clear that people don’t choose their orientation either way, and that homosexual desires have been present among some people in most cultures throughout history, but aside from that: the research doesn’t seem nearly as clear as he concluded.
That got me thinking about how this idea—that homosexuality is the result of childhood wounds or societal influence—is predominate in many Christian circles as well, and it often leads to different problems. I’m not an expert here, but scientists who have devoted their lives to these questions say the research indicates that a gay orientation is likely caused by a number of factors. Both biology and the developmental process likely influence a person’s sexual orientation, and the extent to which one is more influential than the other probably differs from person to person, as sexuality is so layered and complex.
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.
I was providing a training for counselors recently, and at one point we were discussing the concept of congruence, which I was describing as an end goal in a counseling process I had helped co-develop with Warren Throckmorton (referred to as Sexual Identity Therapy). The thinking is that when you counsel someone who experiences a conflict between their sexual identity and their religious identity, you want to help them resolve that conflict; that resolution can be thought of as congruence. The experience of congruence may look different for different people.
When I think of congruence, I am thinking of helping a person live his/her life and form an identity in keeping with his/her beliefs and values. I came across the idea of congruence among gay Christians when I conducted a series of studies of sexual minority Christians. (“Sexual minority” in the mainstream LGBT literature refers to people who experience same-sex attraction whether or not they identify as LGBT or report same-sex behavior.) In any case, I was comparing those who integrated their attractions with a gay Christian identity and those Christians who dis-identified with a gay identity. If I were to translate this to the SF crowd, I would say that the gay Christian identity was closest to what we might describe as a Side A gay Christian. The group that dis-identified with a gay identity were either closer to what readers here would think of as Side B gay Christians (in terms of not viewing same-sex relationships as morally permissible) but without the “gay” identification, if that makes sense.
My work as a psychologist has been in the study of sexual identity development among people of faith. I conduct research on the experiences of Christians who are navigating their sexual identity in light of their religious identity. Most of that research ends up at professional conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. I’ve been told that an average of three people actually read any peer-reviewed journal article, so I try to blog about some of the findings here and also discuss current happenings related to an institute I direct here.
I have conducted other studies as well—some truly controversial studies that are indirectly related to sexual identity development—and I will share in the future how those projects have changed the way I approach this topic.
How do I fit into all of this? My interactions with folks at SF have grown over time. I had read Ron Belgau’s work and Wesley Hill’s book quite a while ago, and I had the opportunity to meet and interact with Wesley in England a couple of years ago. I’ve also followed Melinda Selmys’ and Julie Rodgers’ blogs for some time now. Like most readers, I have benefited from learning some facet of their lives, the challenges they have faced either living single or celibate or living in a mixed orientation marriage. They have also challenged me to grow in important ways.
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.
Josh Gonnerman has already written a fine response to Austin Ruse’s Crisis Magazine article. There is one point that I wanted to address that I didn’t think he covered, which is the belief within a lot of conservative Catholic circles that any kind of intimate friendship between men and women is “playing with fire.”
I suppose that I should begin by pointing out that I am a convert—that’s true of most of the people here on Spiritual Friendship, but many of my friends and colleagues here are converts from Protestant churches that share this kind of suspicion when it comes to mixed-sex friendship. I’m a convert from liberal Anglicanism via atheism so I was never raised with any of these ideas. It was always just normal for me to have male friends, and it was normal for my male friends to have female friends.