God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, the long-awaited first volume of Sarah Coakley’s theologie totale was finally published last month, and my copy has arrived. Coakley’s broad project is to find resources in the ascetic traditions of Christianity to help to deal with contemporary concerns about sex and gender. In her Prelude, she writes about the understanding of desire in contemporary culture and the theological tradition; I include some selections, which I hope will be of interest to our readers:
Last week I spoke at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My talks were part of an ongoing series of Faith and Sexuality events they’re hosting, and it quickly became apparent that the campus is having a much deeper and more nuanced discussion of these matters than I’ve seen in similar places, which was encouraging. It was a wonderful visit. Here’s one student, Ryan Struyk, with his take on the kinds of conversations we had, and here’s the campus newspaper report on my talks.
Video recordings of the talks are also available at Calvin’s website. The first one was titled “Between Presumption and Despair: Practicing the Virtue of Hope as a Celibate Gay Christian,” and the second was called “Spiritual Friendship: A Gay Christian Perspective.” As always with this sort of thing, I immediately noticed some places where I wished I’d put things differently, and places where I wished I’d significantly expanded on what I was attempting to say. (It’s just really hard to talk about these themes in a way that acknowledges both unanswered questions and a certain confidence in Scripture and the Christian tradition, both personal and communal pain and joy, both ongoing tension and reliable grace. I am coming to believe that the book I’m working on will only be satisfying—to me, at least—if I can find a way to write well, to write hopefully but also unflinchingly, about all the hardships of friendship, including jealousy, betrayal, frustrated longing, etc.)
A quote from a very good book I’m rereading at the moment, Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection by Beth Felker Jones:
We love one another through the passions—we are moved to the good by the sensibility of the body. When we misconstrue the good, the passions are part of the body’s disorder. Rightly, however, desire itself is to and for God. One way we are graciously permitted to seek Christ is through the love, desire, and joy we have for one another. Thus our passionate love for each other, not only that love narrowly conceived as sexual, is an aspect of our sanctification out of the reach of the disembodied soul. Ordered desire rightly directs us to the love of God. Our sensible delight in one another rightly orders us to the Creator. [Eugene] Rogers reminds us that “it is through the body that the neighbor, and through the neighbor Christ, by the Spirit, does not leave human beings alone.” We know and love God through the available bodies of other human creatures. So, we need to be available to one another very much. It is in Christian community that we are shaped into lovers of God and neighbor, “for knowledge begins from creatures, tends to God, and love begins with God as the last end, and passes on to creatures.” We are shaped in our love through the ecclesial body. The desires of psychosomatic creatures are ordered only through their bodies. With the Psalmist, our flesh faints for God. Desire is taken up for and ordered to God, and our bodies long, finally, for our Redeemer.
I started responding to one of the comments that I received on yesterday’s post, and the response kind of took on a life of its own. Jose Ma writes:
A gay person trying to live the Church’s teaching is a hero in a way that a chaste straight Christian just can’t be. They will always have a legitimate outlet for their needs for affection and sexuality. Gays can’t have that. We can’t get around that fact. Celibacy is a beautiful sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom when freely chosen. When you have to be celibate forever because of things outside your control it’s a lot less beautiful at first.
This concern is really common amongst LGBTQ Christians who find themselves in the position of having to live celibately when they have not chosen this state of life. From a purely academic point of view, it’s an interesting reversal: in the early church, celibacy was a radical and liberating option precisely because it gave people the ability to exercise choice with respect to their sexuality. In most cultures, throughout most of history, marriage has been the unchosen vocation: people were routinely forced into conjugal intimacy through circumstances beyond their control. Although the Mediaevals romanticized the Virgin Martyrs as icons of purity pitted against lascivious Roman governors, in fact the reason that consecrated virginity was a scandal to Roman society is that it undermined patria potestas, allowing young girls to refuse the marriages that their fathers had arranged for them.
Given the volume of unhelpful literature published on the topic of homosexuality and Christianity, I should perhaps not have been surprised to find Dale O’Leary’s latest piece at Crisis Magazine distinctly unimpressive. I did expect, however, that an article entitled “Homosexuality: A New Approach is Needed,” would at least attempt to articulate an approach that was actually new, instead of simply regurgitating the pop Freudianism and New Age psychobabble that forms the standard conservative Christian approach to gay issues.
The central pillar of this approach is that homosexuality is an “attachment disorder” brought about by failure to identify with a same-sex parent. This failure is invariably presented as the fault of the parent. In a much older article published by Crisis, which, again, falsely bills itself as offering “a new approach,” we read the following:
Aardweg notes that most homosexuals report lack of masculine influence from their fathers, ranging from lack of involvement in the child’s education to open hostility … Bieber found that 75 percent of his sample described their fathers as detached and 45 percent described their fathers as hostile … Aardweg quotes homosexuals’ descriptions of their relationship with their fathers: “My father was interested in my brother and not me”; “My father was a weak person; he was frequently ill”; “I only met my father on Sundays when he was not working… for me he was no more than a visitor.”
I recently posted a link to Jerry Walls’s essay, “Homosexual Behavior and Fornication: Intimate Bedfellows,” in which he argued that Christians have no chance of challenging homosexual behavior with integrity if they do not begin with the far more prevalent sin among heterosexuals. James Mace, one of his good friends and former students, responded in the comments. While generally agreeing with Walls’s argument, Mace raised what he sees as an important difference between the two. Here is what he wrote:
While noting some similarities, nobody has taken into consideration the differences between the offensive pro-homosexual movement and the lack of such a movement of pro-adulterers. There is no Fornicators Pride movement actively undermining Christian theology to rewrite God’s word to say that fornication is the way God made us.
Thus, while the article has many true things re which I rejoice, I am disturbed by the seeming willingness to abandon the defense against attacks on theology and praxis from Sodomist ideologues, falsely equating them with garden-variety fornicators while ignoring determinative distinctions in their religio-socio-political agenda.
One of the more interesting points for me in Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George’s book What is Marriage? was their reflection on how the legalization of same-sex marriage may contribute to demoting friendship as a lesser form of love. If marriage is so important that it has to be defined as the place where intimacy is available, then friendship, by contrast, looks paler and less attractive than ever. “We come to see friendships as mere rest stops on the way back to family life,” the authors write.
In her most recent editorial for Christianity Today, “Same-Sex Marriage and the Single Christian,” Katelyn Beaty, a single, heterosexual woman (and a friend of mine) explores this point powerfully and poignantly. Writing about the elevation of marriage in the evangelical Christian world—an elevation that mirrors, in ironic ways, the wider society’s elevation of marriage—Beaty says:
[L]ocal churches have acted as if monogamous sexual unions are the closest icon of heaven in this life. That no matter how much self-giving ministry or cultural creativity we undertake in our lifetimes, they are second-best without a spouse and children in tow.
In more detail than this space allows, other writers and theologians (I think especially of Rodney Clapp and Joseph Hellerman) have deftly tackled American Christians’ overemphasis on marriage. What I might offer to the conversation is the perspective of a single Christian. As I watch many fellow young Christians come out in support of gay marriage, lest they bar friends or family from finding the gift of sexual companionship, they are making it harder for me to make sense of chastity.
Jerry Walls has a new post up on Houston Baptist University’s Christian Thought blog called Homosexual Behavior and Fornication: Intimate Bedfellows. Here is the heart of his argument:
Christians have no chance whatever of challenging homosexual behavior with integrity unless they start with the sexual sins of heterosexuals. We cannot take a morally credible stand against the sexual sins of the small minority of the population if we condone the sexual sins favored by over 90% percent of the population. If fornication is okay, if casual divorce is no big deal, then it rings utterly hollow to try to take a loud (or even a quiet) stand on homosexual behavior.
Of course, challenging heterosexual sin is no simple matter in contemporary culture. For the fact of the matter is that the non-marital sexual practices of many persons, including Christians, flow quite naturally out of the worldview in which they have been steeped (unfortunately many Christians are shaped more by pop culture than they are by Scripture). To have any realistic chance of countering this will require a serious recovery of the Christian view of sexuality, which requires even more fundamentally a substantive Christian view of human persons and their place in the great drama of creation and redemption. In short, that will require that we persuasively teach Christian morality as an integral component of the entire Christian vision of reality. And we must convey the beauty and goodness of this vision, and how it conduces to human flourishing, as vigorously as we argue for its truth. But nothing short of that has any real hope of bringing genuine renewal in the realm of sexual morality.
Justin Taylor has a lovely post here summarizing what we might learn about Christian friendship from the correspondence of Esther Edwards Burr (1732-1758), Jonathan Edwards’ daughter and Aaron Burr’s mother, with her friend Sarah Prince.
Modern readers are sometimes taken aback by the way in which same-sex friendships were described with passionate expression usually reserved for lovers. Our fear of homoerotic overtones has almost entirely muted this sort of language today. But it was common in Puritan New England and continued at least into the late nineteenth century, applying not only to friendships between women but also friendships between men.
For example, Esther describes how excited she would become at the arrival of a new letter from her friend: “I could not help weeping for joy to hear once more from my dear, very dear Fidelia. . . . I broke it open with [as] much eagerness as ever a fond lover imbraced the dearest joy and dlight of his soul” (March 7, 1755).
She felt similarly after having read the letter itself: “Every Letter I have from you raises my esteem of you and increases my love to you—their is the very soul of a friend in all you write—You cant think how those private papers make me long to see you” (Letter No. 21, April 16, 1756).
Esther even wonders at times if her love for Sarah is bordering on idolatry, becoming too attached to things of this earth: “As you say, I believe tis true that I love you too much, that is I am too fond of you, but I cant esteem and value too greatly, that is sertain—Consider my friend how rare a thing tis to meet with such a friend as I have in my Fidelia—Who would not value and prize such a friendship above gold, or honour, or any thing that the World can afford? . . . I am trying to be weaned from you my dear, and all other dear friends, but for the present it seems vain—I seem more attached to ‘em than ever— . . .” (June 4, 1755). She sees friendship as one of life’s greatest earthly goods, though less than God.
Jonathan Rauch’s brief memoir, Denial: My Twenty-Five Years Without a Soul, published recently as a Kindle Single, describes how powerful it can be to find that your previous unnamable self has a place. For much of the story’s first half, Rauch tells about trying to interpret his same-sex attraction as “envy.” He would admire the muscles of his friends and tell himself that that admiration was his longing, as a bookish, skinny kid, to have the same kind of body. But as the story finishes, he realizes that was dissembling: “I had resisted imagining myself as a homosexual or even imagining that it might be possible for me to be a homosexual, because I had supposed that to be a homosexual is to lose any possibility of a normal life.”
Near the end of his narrative, Rauch says this:
And as I write these words, I have been married for going on three years. Married. The very word is a miracle to me. The young boy sitting on the piano bench structured his life, shaped his personality, twisted and then untwisted himself, around the certain knowledge that he could not love in a way which could lead to marriage; and so he grimly determined that he could not love at all. But he was wrong. He underestimated himself and he underestimated his countrymen even more. They and he have found a destination for his love. They and he have found, at last, a name for his soul. It is not monster or eunuch. Nor indeed homosexual. It is: husband.