The Future of Asceticism

Over the last couple of years, Eve Tushnet and I have batted around the idea of co-writing a blog post or essay as if we were looking back on the present from the vantage point of fifty years or so. What will be different in Christian conversations about homosexuality in several decades? And what will we wish we had changed sooner?

I’ve been thinking again about this as I’ve been reading the Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley’s newest book this past week, The New Asceticism: Gender, Sexuality and the Quest for God, which I hope to write a lot more about here in the days to come (and which I’ll be reviewing for Books & Culture). One of the main things Coakley is concerned to do in this book is to help us all achieve better, more Christian disagreements with each other, and the sort of future she imagines for “sexuality” discussions is one that I am powerfully drawn to.

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“Washed and Still Waiting”

Yesterday I was honored to give a lecture at a plenary session for the annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting, held this year in Atlanta. The title of my talk was “Washed and Still Waiting,” riffing on my 2010 book title Washed and Waiting, in which I’d tried to describe my celibate gay Christian life as life of tension between the “already” and the “not yet”—I’m already washed, forgiven, and justified in Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), and I’m waiting eagerly for the resurrection of the body (Romans 8:23).

A few years after the book came out, the journalist Jeff Chu—who, I’m happy to say, has since then become a friend of mine—wrote a book called Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. Towards the middle of his survey of American Christian gay life, Jeff reflects on my Washed and Waiting:

When I finished Hill’s slim volume, I realized… that I would rather have read Washed and Still Waiting, the book that he might be ready to write three decades from now. It’s one thing for someone in his twenties to declare publicly his choice of celibacy—admittedly, a difficult, unorthodox, and bold thing. It’s entirely another to stand by that decision thirty years on. What are the effects of this kind of long-term chastity? What would life look like for the homosexual who, in his relative youth, chose this?

Taking my cues from Jeff’s questions, I decided I would use my ETS plenary lecture to reflect on how it might be possible for people like me to persevere in chastity over the long haul. Although I still can’t offer three decades’ hindsight, I do have some ideas about where to find hope.

In the lecture I explored three areas of pastoral theology that seem to me especially relevant for celibate Christian believers who are gay or lesbian. First—and I decided to take the tried-and-trusted Baptist preacher route of have three points with alliteration!—I discussed our need to rediscover the dignity of the celibate vocation in specifically evangelical Protestant settings. Second, I discussed our need for discipline in stewarding our sexuality. And third, I talked about how we need a theology of celibacy’s direction or destination.

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A Friendship Poem

We’ve been known to post a poem or two in honor of friendship on this blog. Here’s one more for your weekend. This one becomes more poignant when you know it was written by a much-beloved friend who, even as he celebrated his friends in this way, was dying of cancer.

Brett Foster, “For My Friends”

Mark 2

The frequency of your kindnesses
to me is deserving of acknowledgment.
Will it provide you with some thin glimpse,
at least, to say that I have felt at my best,
because of you, in these worst of mortal days?
To have lived this one life so multiply
surrounded by friends of an uncommon sort—
immeasurable comfort, source of my pride.
You cared for me in ways that made me
feel like the paralytic who gets carried
over to that gathering at Capernaum, maybe
at the healer’s own place. The front door
is unapproachable because of the crowds.
And like so—: all summer you have hauled
me around on my stretcher, and when
the entrance was barred to us, you climbed
atop the roof and began sawing through it.
(Even hoisting me up there— keeping me
steady and leveled as we ascended
the ladder, what an effort it demanded!)
I usually picture, in my doubtless presumptuous
modern way, that the roof was thatch,
and even so, it would be no easy task
to open up that skylight on my behalf.
Just so you have lowered me into that room
where a message is being heard, something
about all things being restored, made new,
and there I am, well-meaning interrupter,
empowered by his well-meaning crew.
And I can still feel your presence above me,
the weight of me and your sustaining it,
the rope digging into and burning your palms.
Down here, I am unwavering in expectation
for some remark about forgiveness,
though I really don’t know what it will mean
to be told, “Get up, pick up your stretcher,
and make your way home.” I question
the home that is spoken of, and the nature
of that invited rising. In any case, I feel sure
I would do so quickly, both thrilled with sudden
motion but also, truth be told, glad
to be done with all of this fuss. I like to imagine,
too, you guys still on that roof, how easily
you’ll lift the empty stretcher out of the house,
your smiles and handshakes as you descend
from the roof, mission done, and then stash
the ladder somewhere, and race to meet me
in one of our places— a dark back corner
at Bavarian Lodge or Muldoon’s, or perhaps
the side porch, August evening at Two Brothers.
You will not forget the stretcher, exactly,
and neither will I. I don’t envision feeling confident
enough to throw it away for good, but how glad
and relieved I will be, after our pints (my treat),
to store it away in a closet, not thinking
about it, not at all, till I have need of it again.

Rowan Willliams: Pope Francis and the Danger of “Package Deal” Ethics

Pope Francis

In the New Statesman, Rowan Williams—the former Archbishop of Canterbury—reviews two new biographies of Pope Francis: Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: Untying the Knots and Francis: Pope of Good Promise by Jimmy Burns. One of the interesting points in the review concerns the difficulty of classifying Francis according to the usual American political labels:

Conservative or liberal? The Pope’s record might prompt us to ask whether these categories are as obvious or as useful as we assume. As various commentators have astutely noticed, the Pope is a Catholic. That is, he thinks and argues from a foundational set of principles that are not dictated by the shape of political conflict in other areas. It is difficult for some to recognise that his reasons for taking the moral positions he does on abortion or euthanasia are intimately connected with the reasons for his stance on capitalism or climate change.

The Catholic conservative who has unthinkingly rolled up the pro-life agenda with support for the death penalty, the National Rifle Association, US foreign policy and the uncontrolled global market finds this as shocking as the Catholic (or, indeed, non-Catholic) liberal who thinks in terms of a single “progressive” or emancipatory agenda that the Pope is failing to support consistently. But “conservative” and “progressive” imply that we all know there is one road for everyone on which we may move forward or backwards, rapidly or slowly. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded from time to time that this assumption can be an alibi for lazy thinking. The Catholic tradition of ethics and theology sets out a model of what is abidingly good and life-giving for human beings which does not depend on this model of a single road towards a given future. It is about making choices that bring you closer or otherwise to a particular vision of human well-being; and those choices do not necessarily map directly on to other, familiar taxonomies.

This is a point that has relevance well beyond the limits of the Church. We are all easily lured into what might be called “package deal” ethics: if you are committed to one cause you will probably be committed to a particular set of causes, even if there is no clear logical connection. The danger then is of reducing ethics to style, to a set of superficially matching accessories. It is an important jolt for us to have to come to terms with those who look for a deeper kind of consistency – whether they are radical libertarians uniting a pro-choice position with a deeply individualist social morality, or Catholics uniting an orthodox sexual ethic with root-and-branch hostility to market economics or nuclear arms. It was one of the choice ironies of the era of the Second Vatican Council that the stoutest defender of the inherited position on birth control – Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani – was also one of the fiercest advocates of nuclear disarmament. Having to think through the connections between our moral perspectives so that we can have intelligent arguments about them is a rather urgent need in the current climate, where policy and principle are so often created reactively and opportunistically. (Do I have any political party especially in mind? Perish the thought.)

In other words, it is futile to expect this pope or any other simply to fit the ready-made stereotypes. Pope Benedict “looked” conservative; Pope Francis “looks” liberal. Yet that tells you nothing at all of interest about them. And it obscures a simple fact: Benedict’s theology, though cast in a different and less accessible idiom, is entirely of a piece with all that Francis has said in his major public essays about evangelism and now about ecology. Even the contrast in style between them can be exaggerated a little. Paul Vallely notes that Francis has chosen to sit on the same level as his guests on formal occasions. Benedict did the same at the interfaith event in Assisi some years ago; he was also the first to break the taboo on the Pope eating in public with others.

Read the whole article at the New Statesman.

Carl Trueman: Time to Take Marriage Seriously?

One of the biggest news stories this week is the Kim Davis saga in Kentucky. It is sad to see that Davis’s legal advisers have apparently encouraged her to continue defying court orders, with the foreseeable result that she is now in jail. Wiser legal minds—one thinks especially of St. Thomas More—might have counseled her to resign. That she has chosen defiance puts Christians who believe in the traditional Christian definition of marriage in a quandary. On the one hand, it is difficult to say anything critical of an apparently sincere Christian woman who is in jail for standing up for her beliefs. On the other hand, it is difficult to defend her without obscuring the New Testament’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

Wedding Rings

Over at First Things, Carl R. Trueman, a professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary weighs in on the controversy in a spirit that is sympathetic to Davis’s stance, while focusing on the timeless truths about marriage which the Church needs to do more to defend:

The controversy surrounding the refusal of a Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, to issue marriage licenses so that she can avoid sanctioning same sex unions raises a whole host of issue which will be debated for some years to come. While sympathizing with her position on marriage, I also find Ryan Anderson’s argument, that religious liberty is not in itself absolutely decisive in such a case, to be compelling.

Of course, the situation also highlights another aspect of the struggle over same-sex marriage. The woman concerned is apparently on her fourth husband and thus her critics ask the obvious, and legitimate, question: How high a view of marriage does that indicate? Her response is that she has only been a Christian for a few years and that her broken marriages are part of a life which she has left behind.

I have no reason to doubt her sincerity or the significance of her conversion. But the fact that she has only been a professing Christian for a few years scarcely defuses the power of the question. The politics of sex is the politics of aesthetic and rhetorical plausibility, and a multiple divorcee understandably lacks such plausibility on the matter of the sanctity of marriage. The only way in which her defense could be deemed plausible would be if the church in general had maintained in practice, not just theory, a high view of marriage. Then the move from outside the church to inside the church would perhaps have more rhetorical power. In fact, at least as far as Protestantism goes, the opposite is the case. The supine acceptance by many churches of no fault divorce makes the ‘I have become a Christian so it is all different now’ defense appear implausible, even if it is actually true in specific cases.

Read the whole article at First Things

Our Stories

When I was in high school I spent just hours upon hours trying to suss out gay subtext in novels, songs, poetry. I longed for that moment of recognition: the moment when you realize that someone else has put into words and images something you have felt but never understood. It was so frustrating when somebody would slur through a pronoun (is that, “Was a lover, and his last”?) or skitter away from a revealing turn of phrase. And it was so thrilling when somebody–usually Morrissey, bless his heart–suggested that there was a place for all my queer stories and emotions.

It’s often easier to tell the truth in art than in plain speech. In art you can suggest and shade, you can show every angle of a situation instead of just the one you want to champion; you can explore your own doubts and despair within an overall context of Christian faith; you can show the world’s beauty and broken edges instead of just arguing for them. You can admit a lot under cover of fiction, and you can speak in several tongues at once. You can expand the imagination.

So in this post I want to see which stories are out there that show the intersection (or collision) of same-sex sexual desire and Christian faith, in which neither the desires nor the Christian sexual ethic are demonized. Are there stories–plays, paintings, poems, songs–that show people like us?

I welcome your nominations! My own suggestions are below the cut, as well as some ideas about what I’m looking for and not looking for.

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Can Vows Change Friendships? And Should They?

Sam Allberry (whose own story of being a Christian and coming to terms with his same-sex attraction you can watch here) has written a sharp, charitable take on my new book Spiritual Friendship, and I’m grateful to him for it. While I don’t want to turn this blog into a platform for promoting my books, I do think, in this particular case, reflecting on what Sam says may help all of us grapple more deeply with what we’re trying to accomplish on this blog.

Sam says a lot of kind things about the book, but here is his primary substantive criticism:

[Hill] exhorts us to reconsider the place of covenanted friendships in the life of the church. No one can deny what earlier Christian generations can teach us about friendship. Nor can we deny that a lack of commitment drives so much of our contemporary loneliness. But it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency. One of the heartbreaking episodes recounted in chapter five suggests at least something of this. Hill anticipates these concerns but does not allay them for me.

I think there is also a significant category confusion. Making a close friendship covenantal takes it from a familial setting to something more approximate to a marital one. But whereas marriage is necessarily (at least in Christian thinking) limited exclusively only to one, close friendship is not. We have the capacity for—and it may be healthier to cultivate—close friendship with a small number. This is not the case with marriage. A covenant may not be the best vehicle for the commitment we need, and yet are so often lacking, in friendships today.

I have three main thoughts in response to this line of criticism. I’ll post the first one today and the second and third ones later in the week.

The first is simply that Sam and I may have a genuine disagreement here! I share all of Sam’s concerns about the dangers that might arise in a “covenanted” same-sex friendship, including co-dependency, sexual temptation, and others. But I have become more and more convinced that abusus non tollit usum (“the abuse of a thing does not negate its proper use”). Is it an adequate argument against committed, promise-bound friendships to note that they may go badly wrong? I’m not yet persuaded that it is.

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An Initial Response to SCOTUS: Where Do We Look for the End of Loneliness?

Over at First Things, I’ve contributed to a symposium on yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling. The questions each of us were given to answer were these: “How should we respond to how the Supreme Court has ruled? What’s next?”

My answer started off with a riff on a really affecting gay memoir:

In his memoir Denial: My Twenty-Five Years Without a Soul, the gay journalist Jonathan Rauch says that there once existed a frightened young man tortured with the certainty that there was no place in the world for the love he experienced. That man was Rauch, and there was no home for him—none, that is, until he and his fellow Americans decided he had the right to marry. “They and he have found, at last, a name for his soul. It is not monster or eunuch. Nor indeed homosexual. It is: husband.”

When I read Rauch’s book, that last sentence left a lump in my throat. That receiving the word husband felt to Rauch like the relief of a negative biopsy—“You’re not sick or twisted or crazy; you’re just hindered from giving and receiving love, and now the hindrance is removed”—goes a long way toward explaining the jubilation so many gay and lesbian people feel in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS ruling. Finally, their loves may be dignified not with the anemic moniker friend or partner or the clinical epithet disordered or the disdainful slur pervert but rather with the venerable, ordinary, immediately recognizable words husband or wife.

You can read the rest of what I wrote by clicking through—basically, in my contribution, I fault us Christians, the churches themselves, for our complicity in promoting erroneous views of marriage (“we,” not just “them,” share the blame!)—but I wanted to take the opportunity here to say a little bit more.

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Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon

I have an article up at Christianity Today titled, “Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon,” where I introduce three contrasting lenses through which people see and respond to gender dysphoria and related matters. I also discuss the importance of not equating gender congruence with spiritual maturity:

We can be sensitive, though, not to treat as synonymous management of gender dysphoria and faithfulness. Some may live a gender identity that reflects their biological sex, depending on their discomfort. Others may benefit from space to find ways to identify with aspects of the opposite sex, as a way to manage extreme discomfort. And of course, no matter the level of discomfort someone with gender dysphoria experiences (or the degree to which someone identifies with the opposite sex), the church will always encourage a personal relationship with Christ and faithfulness to grow in Christlikeness.

Those interested in the topics of gender dysphoria and the experiences of transgender persons, including Christian transgender persons, might be interested in the book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria.