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.
In the process of doing some research on George Herbert, I stumbled across a passage from Stanley Cavell’s essay on King Lear that I think is relevant to the themes I’ve been pursuing at here at SF. Discussing the character of the Earl of Gloucester, Cavell writes that
if the failure to recognize others is a failure to let others recognize you, a fear of what is revealed to them, an avoidance of their eyes, then it is exactly shame which is the cause of his withholding of recognition [of his bastard son Edmund]…. For shame is the specific discomfort produced by the sense of being looked at, the avoidance of the sight of others is the reflex it produces. Guilt is different; there is the reflex to avoid discovery. As long as no one knows what you have done, you are safe; or your conscience will press you to confess it and accept punishment. Under shame, what must be covered up is not your deed, but yourself. It is a more primitive emotion than guilt, as inescapable as the possession of a body, the first object of shame.
There’s much to ponder here, not least in relation to Lear itself, but I’m especially interested in the generic insight that the result of shame is an inability truly to see others, to offer others recognition. As Cavell puts it later, “recognizing a person depends upon allowing oneself to be recognized.”
This is one of the main reasons that I encourage gay Christians, when they ask me for advice, to come out. It’s not just that the enormous effort it takes to hide your sexuality involves an unhealthy self-focus, a constant policing of speech and actions, which can be profoundly crippling to your spiritual life (if my experience is any indication). It’s also that staying in the closet can cause you to refuse to recognize your gay or lesbian neighbors, all in an effort to stay hidden yourself.
A couple of days ago, Rowan Williams addressed the matter of weddings becoming ever more extravagant events:
Speaking at a debate entitled “Marriage: Love or Law” in London, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said that the “marketisation of marriage” must be curtailed.
He labelled the idea of “the perfect relationship crystallised in the perfect wedding day” as a farce, suggesting that it was nothing more than the product of “immense economic advertising investment in this massively fantastical experience … after which, of course, nothing is ever quite so good again”…
According to Lord Williams, who is now master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, the way in which weddings have become hugely aspirational “experiences” as opposed to a simple public declaration of commitment is having a detrimental effect on the stability and longevity of marriages.
Reading this made me think of some similar remarks made a while ago by Duke Divinity School ethicist Amy Laura Hall:
The way that young Protestant couples plan their weddings bodes very ill for the kind of family they are hoping to become. You watch what a wedding is often about these days—it is about displaying one’s wealth to those one is eager to impress. If you think instead about the scriptural wedding itself, about being the open banquet that one hopes one’s marriage will be, I think weddings would look a lot different than they do. I think they would be on a Sunday morning service where everyone is invited. I think they would look more like a potluck than the kind of catered extravagances toward which even the middle class is climbing. I think the image of the banquet where the blind and the lame are invited, and those who cannot repay us, that image would be one in which to start a marriage.
Crisis Magazine recently covered several writers at Spiritual Friendship with some caution at the notion of chaste friendship. Austin Ruse’s skepticism shines through when he writes:
“Their ideal is that you can draw close to someone of the same-sex, love them intimately and intensely, yet never cross the line into sexual activity. They point to the relationship between Jesus and young John as a model. Recall John was the “one whom Jesus loved” and who laid his head on Jesus’ chest, something if done today would clearly be considered gay.”
This, if anything, should be a lesson to us from history. It’s a well-documented fact that previous generations were far more comfortable with people of the same gender sharing physical affection. The Art of Manliness had a terrific post on this earlier this summer, with the photographic evidence to prove it.
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.