Theologues Podcast: Sexuality and the Church

Ron Belgau

I was recently invited to join the Theologues podcast to talk about homosexuality and Spiritual Friendship:

Brandon Peach guest hosts this episode with Stan Patton, Jonathan Balmer and our featured guest Ron Belgau, co-founder of Spiritual Friendship and a gay and celibate Christian on how the Church should approach homosexuality, whether or not homosexuality is a sin, what the Church can do to be present for those who are homosexual in their midst, marriage and our cultural perspective on sex. This was a really enjoyable show and I think you’ll like hearing Brandon passive-aggressively insult our guests as well as about Jonathan’s Lego obsession.

It was a good conversation, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, mostly friendly. Check it out!

Important Legal Notice: While I stand by my recommendations of hard cider, strawberries, and the Boeing 747, as well as my endorsement of Brideshead Revisited and The Cruel Sea, I did not endorse, recommend or in any way promote the Twilight series. I started to tell a story that would have mocked the Twilight series, was cut off by the host, and my intent twisted by the editors. Everyone involved will be hearing from my lawyers.

Spreading the “Spiritual Friendship” News

And one more thing, before I stop blogging for a couple of weeks of vacation!

Here is a conversation I had recently with Katelyn Beaty, published in The Living Church, about (among other things) the Spiritual Friendship blog.

Please do check it out. Here’s an excerpt:

I became interested in the topic [of friendship] because of my concern for the flourishing of gay people in the Church. As someone who is gay, and who holds to the Church’s traditional view — that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman ordered toward the bearing and raising of children — I am committed to celibacy. And I’ve gotten to know many others who are in my shoes, which means that I’ve become interested in how we might learn to practice a healthy and fruitful celibacy.

C.S. Lewis notes that we in the modern world don’t pay nearly as much attention to friendship as we do to romantic love, but Scripture and the Christian tradition challenge us on that point. You can’t read someone like Aelred of Rievaulx or Bonhoeffer and not conclude that friendship is just as honorable, and worthy of time and energy, as marriage and family. Friendship, too, can be a site of sacrifice and devotion, a place where we give and receive genuine love. And for me, that opens up fresh ways of thinking about celibacy. Outside of a monastic context, as someone who lives and works as an ordinary member of an Anglican parish, I am still called, precisely as a celibate man, to make binding commitments and promises to my fellow Christians.

You can click through and read the whole thing here.

Reading Sarah Coakley

One of the most significant books I’ve read recently (or just anytime, period) that has to do with gay Christian whatnot is Sarah Coakley’s new God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’. You can read a very short version of some of its main lines of argument here, and, if you’re interested, you can read my take on the book over at First Things for low price of $1.99 (or why not subscribe?)!

Joshua Gonnerman has already mentioned Coakley’s project here at SF, but I wanted to mention it one more time and draw your attention to a new review of it from Beth Felker Jones. I mention this because I think Felker Jones’ critique of Coakley’s book is especially relevant for the conversations we’re having here at SF.

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The Healing Moment of Coming Out

When I started college, I still often wondered if I was a failed Arkansan. I’d grown up in a warmly encouraging, close-knit family, and I never doubted that my parents admired and appreciated who I’d become. (Their tears when they dropped me off at my residence hall couldn’t take away the surge of pride I’d seen wash over them the day before when the incoming freshman class had all been addressed by the college president.) But, by many measures, I was an outsider during my growing up years. I never learned to love sports like my dad, and to this day I don’t really follow any with any religiosity (though I do get inordinately excited about the Olympics and the World Cup). I never took up fishing or hunting, which put me out of step with not only my immediate and extended family but also many of my closest friends. I was decidedly un-athletic and didn’t play pick-up soccer or basketball games with my friends, let alone join a school team. And my reading was increasingly taking me down intellectual byways and toward conclusions I was sure many of even my very closest friends wouldn’t understand or, even if they did, wouldn’t share.

It’s a time-tested plot device to have a young misfit finally come into his own at university (think of Chaim Potok’s remarkable novels, for example), but it really did happen that way for me. When I got to college, I finally realized that I wasn’t so much a mutant specimen of my native culture; I just seemed to belong to a different culture altogether. In my dorm and in my classes, I finally met others who were more or less like me. I remember sitting down to lunch one day during my first week of college with a fellow student who had read all the same theologians I had, and like a smothering fan boy, I nearly asked for his autograph. I was so pleased and surprised to find a fellow nerd who was also, it seemed, rather normal by other measures, that I went a little overboard in expressing my enthusiasm. Our friendship never took off, but within days I’d met a dozen others like him.

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A Love that Fills, and a Love that Opens

Some friends of mine were recently married. As a part of their wedding ceremony, they included the prayer:

“For those suffering from broken hearts and homes, from loneliness or the dread of it; and for all called to the generosity of the single or celibate; that they might inspire [name of bride and groom] by their conformity to Christ, and always find in them fiercely devoted friends, and in their house a second home.”

This is a rather odd prayer for American weddings, which are often primarily (or purely) celebrations of a “filling love” between the husband and wife. We often celebrate marital love as a love in which the man and woman are seen as fulfilling each others’ deepest desires, creating an insular community in which the couple is viewed as “enough” for each other. The couple is seen as creating a home for themselves, but not a home for others.

But this couple is not only creating a home for themselves; they also desire a home for their friends. This prayer shows a deliberate resistance to one of the greatest tendencies of erotic love: the tendency for that love to be a raging flame in which the couple is consumed by an exclusive desire for each other, a flame that both impassions the couple and burns those who may come too near to them. We’ve all known people who, upon starting a romantic relationship, will abandon their friends and allow all their time and energy to be consumed by their significant other.

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“His Grief Became a Light to Us”

A reader of my book Washed and Waiting, in which I talk at some length about Henri Nouwen’s life as a celibate gay priest, just wrote me an email about how that part of Nouwen’s life intersected with his own. With my reader’s permission, I’d like to share a portion of his email:

I was his student at Yale, working on my Ph.D. when I talked someone into letting his masters level, divinity school lecture course count as a Ph.D. class. I was unable to profit much from the course due to my biases and the form my brokenness took at the time, but I did get into one conversation with him about [John] Calvin’s spirituality after a class. My profs that year featured one luminary after another—Luke Johnson, Sidney Ahlstrom, Conrad Russell (son of Bertrand), etc.—so I wasn’t awestruck, but as he invited me to walk back to his office, then to stay a while, I felt that I never so completely had the attention of someone who didn’t know me at all. He listened with a stunning focus—as if I were the only person in his world, that nothing could be more important than my shallow comments and questions. At the end, he encouraged me a little and gave me a copy of one of his books, with a lovely inscription. No one knew of his same-sex attraction, but some of us felt that he suffered from some wound that, coupled with his holiness and insight, expressed itself in his marvelous tenderness. So his grief, handled with maturity, became a light to us—a model for us all.

I was greatly moved by this remembrance, and I share it here as a reminder of what grace our gay Christian lives are capable of. Even in the midst of longing and yearning like Nouwen’s, we are given gifts that we may pass on to others.

Here Is Your Answer, But You Can’t Have It

Recently, one of my friends on Facebook pointed me to an article on the Gospel Coalition blog about a man who experiences an intensely deep friendship with another guy.  It really is beautiful.  The author’s name is Chad Ashby, and in the article, he makes what I would consider to be a correct distinction between deep love between men and homosexual attraction. He says,

To love another man as your own soul (1 Sam. 18:1) is not homosexual love; it is the love of Christ. It is a true willingness to lay down your life for your brothers (1 John 3:16). We must build these kinds of relationships with one another: men who truly love other men.

As I read Ashby’s description of his friendship, I found my heart soaring. It is this type of deep relationship that I long for (and experience with a select few of my close friends). This “Spiritual Friendship”, it seems, is one of the many life-saving graces that God has given to me and many like me in order to successfully live a chaste life.

And yet, as I read the article, I also felt strangely alienated. Ashby makes it very clear that the type of love he is referring to is not homoerotic.  But what about when this type of love is also accompanied by a homosexual orientation? What happens when I, as a Christian celibate gay man, experience this type of love, but right alongside of it experience erotic attraction as well? Would Ashby be so quick to tell me to pursue close, intimate friendships?  Or would he tell me that it now becomes too dangerous?  I’m not sure…

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In Weakness

Have you ever been dominated by a single word? One that follows you around like some indelible curse, tacked on by barbed comments or dragged along by a tether of your own design?

Mine was weak.*

It coated me like a toxin on my skin, in my soul; I saw it in every mirror and tasted it in every breath. I hated it. And yet, at the same time, I needed it to survive. So long as I was weak nothing could be demanded of me and I could push away all that might complicate my life. If I’m so weak, I thought, I must protect myself. Tension and complexity and nuance became the enemy—threats to my fragile stability and brokers of an inevitable compromise. After all, I’m weak, I can’t handle it. A pious and poisonous half-truth that I believed for most of my life.

But that’s all changing. Through the years, as I have been increasingly involved in the discussion on faith and sexuality, God has used my weakness in countless ways to bring about moments of life and grace. Over and over I am reminded that being weak isn’t the problem—being selfish and bitter is—and what used to be a barren scar of paralyzing insecurity has proven to be fertile ground for solidarity and passion.

So you think I’d get it by now. But…

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On Erotic Interruptions, and the Lovesick God

Falling in love is like falling ill. It often happens unexpectedly, and you don’t really realize what’s going on until you wake up one morning and find yourself in the throes of it. As finite created beings, we are often interrupted by that which is outside of ourselves. The interruption of desire disrupts our daily lives and drives us to active pursuit.

The Ecstasy of St. Teresa - Bernini

This is partly why the Ancients were so wary of erotic desire. It’s disruptive and not easily susceptible to reasoned control. It’s thrilling and exhausting. To desire another person is wearying. Love really can make one sick: few things are as painful as the unfulfilled desire to be near to another. 

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Romance of Friendship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer - 1923

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – 1923

I am not a scholar of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have not read a book-length biography of the man. And my exposure to his writing is limited to Letters and Papers from Prison, the unabridged version (800 pages)!

With those prefatory remarks out of the way, let me say that I am intrigued by how two reviewers of a recent biography have responded to a claim about Bonhoeffer’s homosexual disposition. Charles Marsh, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, has authored, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My goal here is not to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Mr. Marsh’s claim, but to ask why we are making much ado about Bonhoeffer’s alleged sexuality, which may be some-thing or no-thing at all.

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