Some Clarifications Regarding Sexual Orientation and Spiritual Friendship

In contemporary Western culture, it’s common to describe oneself as gay, straight, or bi, depending on whether one’s sexual attractions are primarily directed to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid either the terminology or the assumptions behind it.

As I have said before, I think that the contrast between carnal and spiritual friendship, as described by Aelred of Rievaulx, ultimately provides a more helpful framework for understanding Christian teaching on same-sex friendship and homosexuality than the framework that categorizes people based on sexual orientation. However, sexual orientation categories are difficult to avoid. It’s not just a matter of words used: it’s also a matter of much deeper assumptions that shape the way people interpret their experience.

School of Athens

In this post, I want to examine these categories more closely. Doing so will, I hope, provide insight into why the writers at Spiritual Friendship have been willing to engage with—and how we have tried to challenge—the categories of sexual orientation and sexual identity in contemporary culture.

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To Celibacy!—Part 2

As I related in a recent post, I made a vow, six years ago, to be celibate. I invited a hundred friends and family together for the ceremony. Friends did a skit about my journey out of the closet, Jesse sang Orphan Girl, Dan sang If it Be Your Will, Debbie preached from Scripture and quoted Jayber Crow, and Dale officiated as I made promises. Afterwards we ate, danced, and testified.

The Closet-1

I’ve wondered if I made too big a deal of it. Did I try to valorize a simple step of obedience that God was asking me to take? Was it an enormous exercise of ego? Was it my inner drama queen coming out? Was it a jealous, “I’m gonna have my wedding day too?”

I’m sure my pride was a motivating factor. But here is the outcome I didn’t expect: on that day I felt overwhelmingly, euphorically, well-loved. I emerged from that day feeling commissioned, blessed, humbled by care, and stuffed full of grace.

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Wait a Minute, A Mixed What?

Mike AllenMike Allen lives with his wife and daughter in Shanghai, China, where he teaches English at a private Chinese school. He volunteers with an international youth group, and he blogs in his spare time about faith, sexuality, and life as an expat in China at Adventure in Shanghai.

To most people most of the time, I’m just married. They see me with my wife and daughter, and just see a normal family. Every so often, however, I mention that I’m in a mixed orientation marriage. Then, the response is usually something like, “Wait a minute, a mixed what?” accompanied by a befuddled gaze. I elaborate, and the person then stumbles awkwardly through the conversation, asking in several different ways if, by that, I mean that although I’m married to a woman, I am gay. Once I’ve confirmed that they’ve understood correctly, the befuddled gaze doesn’t always go away.

It’s hard enough for many people to get past the gay-and-Christian part, let alone the gay-and-married-to-a-woman bit. Most people just don’t have a category in their minds for something like this. How in the world can a marriage even exist under such circumstances? Why would either party want it to? Upon what is such a marriage built?

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Bisexuality and the Spiritual Friendship Conversation

Over a year ago, I wrote a post recounting my experience as a bisexually-attracted man. That post was mostly a reflection on my own experience, with some takeaways coming from that. I’ve been thinking for a while about writing a “part two” discussing how this interfaces with questions of the Christian faith and the broader conversation that Spiritual Friendship is contributing to. I recommend reading my first post before this one if you haven’t already.

Given that I do frequently experience attraction, including sexual desire, towards women, marriage is a significant eventual possibility for my life. Although every marriage has its difficulties, I don’t expect that I’d have significant difficulties resulting specifically from being married to a woman. One could describe me as “celibate” on account of the fact that I’m single and sexually abstinent, but my convictions do not point me toward lifelong celibacy as strongly as for others on here. This state in life may well be much more transient for me. So does this mean that the conversation happening on Spiritual Friendship is less relevant to people like me?

I don’t think so. One thing I’ve really appreciated about how Ron and Wes have run Spiritual Friendship is the way they have intentionally cultivated a conversation that is broader than celibacy. Two of our contributors, Kyle Keating and Melinda Selmys, have written about their experiences in marriages to people of the opposite sex. I’ve learned a lot from them, as well as from other people in similar situations, about what healthy marriages can look like when one spouse is a sexual minority.

There is also a great deal I share in common with celibate gay Christians, simply by virtue of being someone who experiences same-sex attraction and has traditional Christian convictions about sexual ethics.

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What Is “Gay”?

Several months ago, I got into a discussion with Wes Hill and Matt Anderson about Wes’s post, Is Being Gay Sanctifiable? At the time, I drafted a post in response to that conversation, but did not have time to polish it for publication. In light of the more recent discussions of language (including Wes’s On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment and Matt’s Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry), I decided to revise and expand the draft.

I want to reflect on what the word “gay” is about—that is, what experience or set of experiences does it point to? (I also want to ask similar questions about “friendship.”) But before doing so, I want us to think about a very different example: the word “ship.” Consider Eustace Scrubb’s response when he found himself magically transported into Narnia and embarked on the Dawn Treader. He wrote in his diary,

It’s madness to come out into the sea in a rotten little thing like this. Not much bigger than a lifeboat. And, of course, absolutely primitive indoors. No proper saloon, no radio, no bathrooms, no deck-chairs. I was dragged all over it yesterday evening and it would make anyone sick to hear Caspian showing off his funny little toy boat as if it was the Queen Mary. I tried to tell him what real ships are like, but he’s too dense.

For Eustace, “ship” referred to a modern ocean modern liner like the Queen Mary; while for the Narnians, “ship” meant a small sailing vessel like the Dawn Treader. The word is the same, and certain key elements of the concept are the same, but what the word is about is different.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

When, as a boy, I read Luke’s description of the Apostle Paul’s journey on a “ship” (in Acts 20-21), I imagined him getting on board something like the MV Coho (above), which I rode several times a year from Port Angeles to Victoria and back again. When I got a little older and realized that Paul had been on a sailing ship, my mental imagery tended to be drawn from the ships of the Age of Discovery, because that was the kind of sailing ship I most frequently encountered in my non-Biblical reading.

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On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment

As Mark Yarhouse pointed out yesterday, Julie Rodgers (and by extension many of the rest of us who blog here at Spiritual Friendship) has recently been facing criticism from her fellow Christians for the way she describes her sexuality and her faith. She writes:

A gay orientation can be understood as an overall draw toward someone of the same sex, which is usually a desire for a deeper level intimacy with those of the same sex. Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex, a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex. This longing for intimacy is usually experienced as a desire for nearness, for partnership, for close friendship, rich conversation, and an overall appreciation of beauty. The best way I can describe my experience of “being gay” is that with certain women I feel the “it” factor: that sense of chemistry that longs to share life with them, to know and be known by them, to be drawn outside of myself in self-giving love for them. When I feel all Lesbiany, I experience it as a desire to build a home with a woman that will create an energizing love that spills over into the kind of hospitality that actually provides guests with clean sheets and something other than protein bars. Most women feel that chemistry or longing for other men (even though it can’t be reduced to a desire to have sex with other men), while I usually feel like “bros” with men. This causes me to see the world through a different lens than my straight peers, to exist in the world in a slightly different way. As God has redeemed and transformed me, he’s tapped into those gay parts of me that now overflow into compassion for marginalized people and empathy for social outcasts—he’s used my gay way of being for His glory rather than making me straight.

Here’s an example of the kind of pushback Julie has received: Owen Strachan, an assistant professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College, has argued that this way of speaking

is deeply problematic. It is flawed at the core. Our sins do not enrich our perspective on life; our sins twist God’s good gifts and obscure the purposes of our bodies and our world. Sin never improves your outlook on the world. It always distorts it. Please hear me: there is nothing redemptive about sin. Grace, on the other hand, is the very substance of redemption. But sin has nothing to do with goodness. As far as the east is from the west, so far is sin from any positive moral component.

You can read the rest of his argument here, which can be summarized in three points: “1. The Bible never speaks of positive components of our sins… 2. Homosexuality in Scripture is not neutral. It is evil… 3. Homosexual orientation, therefore, does not yield an enhanced Christian spirituality.”

I’m still trying to understand for myself exactly where the disagreement lies, so this post isn’t going to be my last word on the subject. For now, I just want to try out a thought experiment. I want to suggest that these sharply differing views—Julie’s and Owen Strachan’s—are, in part, the result of different understandings of what “homosexuality” fundamentally is.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, depending on which historical era you lived in, you thought about same-sex desire and same-sex sexual expression differently. If you were a Christian in the medieval era, for instance, you probably thought of same-sex sexual behavior as an instance of lust giving birth to passionate transgression. What was in your sights wasn’t “gay culture” or “being gay” but acting wrongly or desiring wrongly (i.e., being tempted, nurturing lustful imaginations, etc.). You thought about sex between persons of the same sex as a vice that could potentially befall anyone, and you knew that Christianity condemned it categorically, no matter who committed it or what extenuating circumstances there might have been. Continue reading

Is It OK for Christians to Identify as Divorced?

A Catholic friend of mine is divorced. He has not sought—and does not believe he could obtain—an annulment. His ex-wife is still living and in good health, so he expects to remain single for the rest of his life.

Moody Radio recently asked the question, “Is it OK for Christians to identify as gay and celibate?” The host’s answer seemed to be no. It would seem, if we follow her logic—and the logic of other critics like her—that it would also be wrong for my friend to ever say, “I am divorced.” Doing so would involve defining himself based on something evil: “I hate divorce,” God says (Malachi 2:16).

For obvious reasons, I don’t follow Christian debates about remarriage and divorce nearly as closely as I follow debates about homosexuality. But I am not ignorant of them, either. And so far as I know, nobody—no matter where they lie on the spectrum of Christian beliefs about divorce and remarriage—has ever argued that people who have been divorced should not say, “I’m divorced.” Most people recognize that there are lots of practical reasons why someone would sometimes want to say that, why saying it would be relevant.

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4 Elements of a “Mature Adjustment to Celibacy”

I recently came across the work of Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest who released an extensive longitudinal study of the sexual practices of Catholic clergy in 1990. Though the book largely focuses on failures to live out celibacy, Sipe points out what he found to be four essential elements of a “mature adjustment to celibacy”:

  • Productive work;
  • A well-defined prayer life;
  • A deep sense of community;
  • And a dedication to service.

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Friendship and Accompaniment: A Conversation with Aaron Cobb

Aaron Cobb - Loving Samuel

***CORRECTION: Livestream is Saturday, August 30 from 8:00-9:30 pm CDT***

This weekend, I will be joining Aaron Cobb on the Theologues podcast to discuss his book Loving Samuel: Suffering, Dependence, and the Calling of Love. (Full disclosure: Aaron is a former classmate of mine in the PhD program in Philosophy at Saint Louis University.)

The book tells the story of Aaron’s son Samuel, who was diagnosed with Trisomy 18 in September, 2011. Most Trisomy 18 babies die in utero; of those who are born alive, 90% will die within the first year. Even the tiny minority who live past their first year face significant challenges and handicaps.

Despite this difficult prognosis, Aaron and his wife, Alisha, chose to carry Samuel to term. He was born in January, 2012, and died five short, difficult, precious hours after his birth. Aaron comments:

Fulfilling this vocation was difficult and required a choice to embrace the suffering it would engender. But we are convinced that this choice is part of what it means to love; to choose to love is to open oneself simultaneously to both joy and suffering. Thankfully, a community of fellow sufferers provided the gifts and grace of friendship, seconding and sustaining our choice. Fostering courage and hope, they made it possible to live well in the midst of our suffering.

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Grocery Store Celibacy

The folks over at A Queer Calling have an interesting article up today in which they deftly tackle several common misunderstandings about celibacy.

Among several errors they single out for deconstruction, there is this:

An argument we hear from some Christians with a liberal sexual ethic goes something like, “No LGBT person can choose celibacy freely unless his/her Christian tradition also affirms gay marriage. If the celibate LGBT person belongs to a non-affirming tradition, a sense of calling doesn’t matter. If all vocation options aren’t open, the choice to pursue celibacy—the only option—is meaningless.”

This is a view I like to call grocery store celibacy, because the view of the Christian moral life it paints is one much like a grocery store. The more “choices” and “options” you have, and the more unhindered you are in being able to freely decide which option you want to choose from the smorgasbord on offer, the more moral value the choice you eventually make will have. The closer the Christian life comes to reflecting the economy of a consumerist society, the more Christian it is, allegedly.

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