One of the most common ways to argue against the traditional sexual ethic is to cite all the negative consequences that are said to flow directly from it. For example, people point to the high rates of depression and suicide among sexual minorities who grow up within conservative religious communities, and they also remind us that even those who don’t face the most severe mental health consequences still often deal with isolation, fear, shame, and stigma.
The basic argument is this: if we are to judge teachings by their fruit, then we can judge the traditional view of sexual ethics as wrong and immoral.
A common knee-jerk reaction I see from some conservatives is a denial of the problems. I’ve heard several people argue that these claims are just smokescreens for people who want to justify immoral behavior.
I don’t know if I can put this strongly enough: the problems cited are very real, and to deny their existence is to be extraordinarily calloused and unloving. I’ve even experienced some of them, like the fear and shame, myself. And I’ve heard enough stories to know that even the more serious ones like suicidal ideation are shockingly common.
I’m sure the last thing that most of us want to read is yet another pontification on the term “gay”. Hear me out.
In his book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, the great Reformed theologian John Murray makes a helpful observation that sheds some light on our modern discussion of LGBT terminology. Discussing the Calvinist teaching of Limited Atonement, he asks whether or not the title of the doctrine is a fair representation of the content. He concludes, “But it is not the term used that is important; it is that which it denotes.”
I bring this up, not to discuss controversial doctrines, but because John Murray has unintentionally put his finger on one of the main issues in the gay debate. It seems that one of the questions of perennial interest in this conversation about sexuality is, “What does the term ‘gay’ denote?” Does it denote a particular behavior or sinful lifestyle? Or does it simply describe an experience of sexuality, and say nothing one way or the other about how that experience is lived out? Many conservatives insist on anathematizing the term because they argue it necessarily entails a sinful expression of sexuality. They assert that people who label themselves as gay usually mean to say that they also engage in gay sex.
We here at Spiritual Friendship are living testaments to the fact that this is a false assumption. There are many people that mean no such thing by labeling themselves as gay. In fact, I truly believe that most people in our culture, even unbelievers, do not normally give the term “gay” such a meaning that would denote sexual activity. So why, then, is it such a widely held assumption?
Copyright Gregg Webb 2012
There are a number of factors that contribute to my conservative views as a celibate-gay Christian. The traditional view of marriage that I’ve held my whole life rests on several things and goes beyond the main passages of scripture that are so often brought up. Scripture is of course foundational for many of my beliefs regarding my sexuality as are the consistent teachings of the Church for over two millennia; they aren’t however the strongest day to day reminders of why I’ve chosen celibacy as my path. From my Eastern Orthodox upbringing I’ve grown up with the stories of countless men and women who have followed Christ’s call to take up their cross, deny themselves and follow after him. These saints, and especially the ascetics, are my daily reminder of the well-worn path I pursue.
Certainly many of these saints followed celibacy, often in a monastic context, but it’s not for that reason alone that I feel convicted in my own celibacy. Rather, it is that each and every one of them saw absolutely nothing as being of greater value or worth than Christ. There was nothing exceptionally radical, or out of place in their belief that in their pursuit of Christ everything was on the table, including their very life. Because of their witness, and their lives which we listen to and sing about daily in the Church the idea that surrendering my own desire for romantic intimacy and the erotic expression of that desire was something too great to be asked to give seems less out of place or extreme. That isn’t to diminish the weight and the calling of the Church and of community to help each other bear whatever burden they may be called to endure, but rather helps me place my own suffering and my own self-denial in the ancient tradition of the saints of the Church.
A number of writers for Spiritual Friendship recently partnered with Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life to put on an academic conference titled Gay in Christ: Dimensions of Fidelity. The presentation topics ranged from exegetical frameworks to trans issues to discerning vocations to rehabilitating the Church’s concept of eros, all with the hope of urging church leaders toward greater understanding, compassion, and pastoral action.
Like any conscientious graduate student would do during midterms, I ignored all my responsibilities and jumped on a plane to Indiana. Here are three brief reflections as an attendee:
I recently gave a lecture at the University of Notre Dame as part of its Theology on Tap series, sponsored by ND Campus Ministry. You can listen to the audio by clicking here.
Here’s the event description:
Join us for Theology on Tap, a Catholic speaker series for undergraduate and graduate students of all ages, single and married, to share in food, fellowship and faith. The Oct. 29 session will be hosted by Chris Damian, JD Candidate from the University of St. Thomas. This talk will consider the Church’s teachings on homosexuality in the light of God’s love for all his children. In a loving Christian concept of justice, a true Christian view of homosexuality must extend past mere tolerance (which allows for keeping others at arm’s length) to self-giving love. The talk will be hosted at Legends at 8 p.m. All students are invited to attend. Students must be 21 or over to drink. ID required. To see the full schedule of Theology on Tap events, please visit http://campusministry.nd.edu/about-catholicism/theology-on-tap/.
I’ve been following the #ERLC2014 hashtag on Twitter, which links me to updates on the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s 2014 conference on the theme of homosexuality.
Many of the folks tweeting have been voicing frustration, anger, and hurt over what’s being said at the conference. I haven’t been watching any of the livestream, but I imagine some of the frustration is warranted. But, then again, I also imagine much of the hostility to the conference has to do with dismay that the SBC still holds the view of marriage that I do—which is that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman and any sexual activity outside of that context is prohibited for Christians. In other words, I imagine many people’s frustration boils down to (a) incredulity that the SBC still holds this view and (b) fervent desire that it would change.
What I was asking myself today, though, was—once again—why the “traditional view of marriage” provokes so much anger in our culture. I can certainly imagine some legitimate reasons for it to do so, since the people expressing that view have often been hypocritical, upholding “traditional marriage” while also getting divorced at roughly the same rates as more “liberal” folk and behaving with shocking insensitivity toward LGBT people. (The latter is something I know from personal experience, having grown up in the SBC trying to keep my own same-sex desire secret.) But, even granting that, why is it that so many people in our culture, even friends of mine who might otherwise be very sympathetic with much of what the ERLC stands for, are so up in arms about Christianity’s traditional stance on gay sex?
My best friend and I found ourselves in the middle of a crowd of artsy lezzies with our communal gaze fixed on one of our favorite musicians. There was nothing particularly gay going on, but something in the female folk singer happened to draw a certain crowd and that crowd happened to be a bunch of lesbians. My friend and I were both trying hard to be something other-than-gay at that point in our lives, but that night in that venue we felt a freedom we rarely felt: the freedom to stand at ease and release the tension in our shoulders because for one night we could cease to play the straight part and still belong.
We were surrounded by women who knew a slice of our experience: feeling giddy with delight around middle school girls instead of boys, sensing a need to keep it secret if we hoped to be accepted, praying to God to take it away because we wanted so badly to be good, and apologizing for our existence without knowing what we’d done wrong. There was an unspoken solidarity in that space. Just as I was settling into the peace of knowing I was surrounded by others who shared my way of being in the world, I was flooded with a sense of shame. I felt so GAY. The concert brought out my inner lesbian. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I felt guilty because I felt so at home.
As I prayed, studied, listened, and introverted in the months that followed, I began to acknowledge that what I was experiencing that night was something I had experienced (and tried to suppress) throughout my entire life: a sense of peace and belonging when I was around others whose relationship to the world was the same kind of different as mine. We were gay. We had been different for as long as we could remember, and regardless of where it came from or how we would choose to express it in the future, it seemed obvious that the self-flagellation we felt the need to indulge in simply because we felt safe and secure in a group of lesbians was not the path to flourishing.
This is one of the talks that I gave for Trinity school for Ministry last weekend.
Beyond the Culture Wars: Listening to LGBTQ people in the Parish Today
I’ve been told that there are two types of people in the world. There are people who work from the particular to the general: they start with a single concrete example and then they work out from there, deriving principles along the way. A lot of contemporary writing, especially writing for women, is in this style. You pick up a woman’s magazine and the story almost invariably begins with a little slice of life, someone’s particular story, or a cute event that happened while the author was baking apricot crumble. There are other people who work from the general to the particular. They start with grand universal theses and then slowly focus in their particular area of interest. Everyone who has ever attended high-school knows that this is the way that we are taught to write the introduction to a formal essay. You start with a grand statement like “Star-crossed love has been a perennial fascination since first human beings began to tell stories around the fire,” and you end up with a tight, focused thesis like “Romeo was a trumped up playboy, and Juliet was a ditz.”
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.
Via David Mills, here’s something many of you may find provocative:
A respected Conservative clergyman, Gil Steinlauf, senior rabbi of Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation wrote his congregants a moving letter shortly after Yom Kippur. In it, he announced that he and his wife of 20 years, Batya, would be divorcing. That alone would have been surprise enough for his congregation, considering the model marriage, complete with three children, that he and his wife (also a Conservative rabbi and the head of an office of the local Jewish Community Relations Council) had forged. The Steinlaufs’ union had earned the respect and admiration of Adas Israel’s members.
What compounded the jolt, though, was the revelation of what had brought about the decision to divorce. In the husband’s words: “I have come to understand that I am gay.”
Even as an Orthodox rabbi and someone who considers living a homosexual life to be a sin, I could not help but feel anguished by the couple’s “heartbreaking decision,” in Rabbi Steinlauf’s words. He went on to characterize his marriage as one in which he and Batya, a wonderful woman… shared a love so deep and real,” in which, together, they “built a loving home with our children founded principally on the values and joys of Jewish life and tradition.”
Reading those words, I hurt for the husband, I hurt for the wife and I hurt for the children.