An Impatience with Biblical Exegesis

I want to try to comment on a—what to call it? a trend? a mood?—I’m seeing in the ongoing Christian conversations and debates about same-sex marriage. I’d like to call it an impatience with biblical exegesis, and here’s what I mean by that:

When I go and speak in various venues about Christian faith and sexuality, I hear comments like the following with more and more regularity: “We know that both sides aren’t going to agree about what the Bible says. And we know that both sides already know which are their favorite verses and how they interpret them, so we’re not going to change each other’s minds. But what we can do is share our stories with one another. We can learn to understand each other’s lives better. We can gain more empathy for each other. So let’s focus on that rather than having yet another ‘debate’ about the Bible.”

I want to add quickly that I’m not immune to this mood either! As Robert Gagnon pointed out yesterday about my recent public conversation with Justin Lee in Grand Rapids, I talked very little about my reading of biblical texts and spent much more time “telling my story.” I share the temptation that many others of my generation face to believe that talking about the Bible won’t lead to any resolution and so we’re better off simply trying to understand one another’s hopes and fears and offer support where we can. Where the Bible is too divisive, sharing our Christian stories can be something that unites us.

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The Line Dividing Ordered and Disordered

As I discussed in my last post, there are fine distinctions to be made between what is ordered and disordered, beyond simply what is sinful. In other words, in a fallen world, some things are not as God originally intended. Here I want to further discuss one important point.

Aleksandr SolzhenitsynAleksander Solzhenitsyn has a famous quote that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” In a similar manner, the line dividing ordered and disordered cuts through the sexuality of every human being.

This applies to straight people just as much as it applies to sexual minorities. As I mentioned in the last post, I tend to see sexual attraction that a married person feels toward those other than his or her spouse as disordered. However, even for those who do not share that view, disorder is readily apparent from any traditional Christian perspective.

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Sexuality, Omelets, and Identical Twins

In my last post, I drew attention to the very different way that the New Testament dealt with the Old Testament laws concerning food and sex. In this post, I want to reflect a little bit on the significance of this difference. My goal is both to help shed light on the issues raised in my previous post, and also to provide a foundation for some further thoughts on the nature of Christian sexual ethics.

At the most fundamental level, food is a thing, while properly ordered sexual desire is always a desire for communion with a person, created in the image of God. This is an important insight, and I want to explore the implications of it. However, my reflections in this post are intended to be suggestive—to offer avenues for further thought—rather than providing the deductive conclusion to a rigorous argument.

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The New Ex-Gay

While observing the conversation about faith and sexuality over the past few years I have witnessed a depressing number of harmful and untrue words come out of someone’s mouth right after the preface, “Well, as someone with a conservative ethic…” or “As someone who is ‘side-B’…” (Side-B being clunky shorthand for a more traditional sexual ethic, for those who hadn’t heard it before.)

I understand that some of these people are new to the discussion, are becoming more aware of something that they used to not even have to think about. But…

It’s hard, sometimes, to watch people who are insulated from the consequences of their words keep saying the same harmful things over and over. And it becomes harder when these words are used by others as the example of a “traditional sexual ethic.”

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Disputable Matters? Sex vs. Food

The most divisive question facing the early Church was whether it was necessary to observe the entire Mosaic Law—including circumcision and the dietary laws—in order to be a disciple of Christ.

Today, some of the most divisive questions facing the Church concern our response to same-sex attracted Christians and whether to bless same-sex marriages. In response to these divisions, some have suggested that the Apostles’ decision to set aside circumcision and the dietary laws provides a precedent for today: that we should set aside traditional interpretations of the Bible which forbid homosexual acts, and bless same-sex marriages.

In this post, I want to question a simplistic way that the New Testament narrative is applied to contemporary debates. I want to point out first, that the authority claims in the two cases are quite different; and second, that the New Testament approach to sexual ethics is very different from its approach to circumcision and the dietary laws.

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You’re Gay and God Loves You

Just one brief comment on the Christian musician Vicky Beeching’s coming out.

I’ve met Vicky once, when she attended my confirmation in the Church of England at St. John’s College, Durham, where I was based at the time. I was touched that she wanted to attend, and I was grateful for her warm friendliness.

Sean Doherty tweeted yesterday morning after the story was published, “Respect to @vickybeeching today – should not be but *is* still hard to come out and praying for you that you are overwhelmed with support.” I think that’s just exactly right, regardless of where your convictions about sexual ethics fall.

It’s easy for me now, as someone who writes and speaks publicly and frequently about these matters, to forget how difficult it was at first to talk with anyone about my sexuality. Despite the fact that I had a loving, close-knit family, an especially committed group of friends in high school, and an unusually sensitive, thoughtful youth pastor, it still took me until college to tell someone about my feelings. And even then, I was deathly afraid of what my peers would think.

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Coming Out and Being Open

I “came out” just about a year ago. It’s odd looking back on the days when no one knew and comparing those days to my life today, partly because my life looks so different and partly because my life looks so similar. I’m still here. I’m still Catholic. And I’m still the kind of Catholic who affirms everything in that little book we call the Catechism.

But I’m also so different. It’s as if my life were an iceberg and coming out was the decision to let others finally see what was beneath the surface. They had always seen me, but they had also missed out on so much of what puts me together, what lies hidden and holds me up, what gives my life the unique shape and color that it has always had. And coming out has let me look beneath the surface of myself as well.

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Fear and Celibacy

I remember where I was sitting. I was at the end of a long conference table, with students at my sides and my professor at the very end opposite me. We were taking a class on John Henry Newman, and as my professor read aloud from a thick black book containing Newman’s Apologia, his words hit me like a train:

I am obliged to mention, though I do it with great reluctance, another deep imagination, which at this time, the autumn of 1816, took possession of me – there can be no mistake about the fact… that it was the will of God that I should lead a single life. This anticipation, which has held its ground almost continuously ever since… was more or less connected, in my mind, with the notion that my calling in life would require such a sacrifice as celibacy involved; as, for instance, missionary work among the heathen, to which I had a great drawing for some years.

There it was. At the age of fifteen, a teenager heard a call and responded with his heart, “fiat”, let it be. And with the rush of realization, I saw with a new clarity that celibacy is not primarily about sex (or a lack thereof). It’s about love and freedom and courage. Newman’s choice came first, not from a question of sexuality, but from a unique mission to which he found himself called. Continue reading

A Three-Tiered Framework for Thinking About Sexuality

At Spiritual Friendship and in other venues, we often discuss questions of “disorder” and “sin” relating to sexuality (for a few examples, see here, here, here, here, and here). Others have written about similar topics, such as Denny Burk’s exploration of whether same-sex attraction is sinful.

In all these writings, I see several different categorizations that are in play. I think it is helpful, for the purposes of discussion, to explicitly consider three ways to categorize aspects of sexuality: not disordered, disordered but not sinful, and sinful. Not everyone will agree with me on which aspects of sexuality fit into which category, but I think that explicitly considering these categories is a helpful framework for discussion. I will give a brief description of each, as well as some of my current understanding of what fits in each category and how others disagree with me.

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Love True Love, Wherever It Exists

Recently, Wesley Hill posted some wonderful thoughts here about the film Desire of the Everlasting Hills. It is a captivating documentary about three Christians who either return or convert to Catholic Christianity, leaving behind active homosexual lifestyles. There are so many wonderful takeaways, many of which Wes highlights quite well. But I want to focus on one aspect of their stories that struck me as particularly powerful: sacrificial love.

It is no secret that the theological river where I happily find myself swimming believes in a traditional, Side B sexual ethic where all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is contrary to the clear teaching of scripture. I have no qualms with the teaching. However, many times this strongly held belief can go too far, resulting in characterizations of gay people in monogamous relationships that are misinformed or worse (homophobic).

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