A common refrain I see from certain conservative Christian commentators is that homosexuality is “celebrated” in Western culture and that people are “pressured” into accepting “the homosexual lifestyle.” In some sense, I can see where this perception is coming from. I’m currently studying at a large public university, and I have previously done internships in very gay-friendly corporate settings. In these contexts, I do feel quite a bit of pressure to change my beliefs and to affirm all loving, monogamous relationships, including gay relationships with a sexual component.
There are many ways that this perception is problematic, however. The biggest problem I see is that the pressure is far from being one-sided. Ironically, the same people complaining about pressure to affirm gay relationships are themselves often creating immense pressure in a different direction. This pressure is often encouraging me to go beyond holding to traditional sexual ethics, but also to change the labels I use, to try to change my sexual orientation, or to focus my efforts and attention on opposing the gay-affirming segments of society. In some ways, I feel this sort of pressure more acutely than I do the pressure to affirm sexual gay relationships. Rachel Held Evans recently expressed this point well while discussing some related issues: “We aren’t ‘giving in’ to the culture; our culture is evangelical Christianity. We’re struggling with that culture, and doing so comes with a cost.” The fact of the matter is that the social connections that matter the most to me are those of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Here’s something that may interest some of you.
On Saturday I spoke at a conference on singleness at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, and the videos are all online if you want to watch them. My session starts (I’ve been told, I think!) around the 40-minute mark in the video labeled “Morning Sessions,” and I was also on a panel with the other speakers in the afternoon.
It was a real joy to finally have the chance to visit Redeemer. I’ve been listening to Tim Keller’s preaching since I was in high school, so it was a huge honor to meet him and Kathy and Brent Bounds the other amazing conference organizers. If any of you are reading this, thank you again for the warm hospitality and the stimulating conversation!
In the process of doing some research on George Herbert, I stumbled across a passage from Stanley Cavell’s essay on King Lear that I think is relevant to the themes I’ve been pursuing at here at SF. Discussing the character of the Earl of Gloucester, Cavell writes that
if the failure to recognize others is a failure to let others recognize you, a fear of what is revealed to them, an avoidance of their eyes, then it is exactly shame which is the cause of his withholding of recognition [of his bastard son Edmund]…. For shame is the specific discomfort produced by the sense of being looked at, the avoidance of the sight of others is the reflex it produces. Guilt is different; there is the reflex to avoid discovery. As long as no one knows what you have done, you are safe; or your conscience will press you to confess it and accept punishment. Under shame, what must be covered up is not your deed, but yourself. It is a more primitive emotion than guilt, as inescapable as the possession of a body, the first object of shame.
There’s much to ponder here, not least in relation to Lear itself, but I’m especially interested in the generic insight that the result of shame is an inability truly to see others, to offer others recognition. As Cavell puts it later, “recognizing a person depends upon allowing oneself to be recognized.”
This is one of the main reasons that I encourage gay Christians, when they ask me for advice, to come out. It’s not just that the enormous effort it takes to hide your sexuality involves an unhealthy self-focus, a constant policing of speech and actions, which can be profoundly crippling to your spiritual life (if my experience is any indication). It’s also that staying in the closet can cause you to refuse to recognize your gay or lesbian neighbors, all in an effort to stay hidden yourself.
I haven’t yet been able to read Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert cover to cover, but I do want to highlight one portion of it that I’ve been thinking about recently in relation to our project here at Spiritual Friendship. Towards the end, Butterfield writes:
What good Christians don’t realize is that sexual sin is not recreational sex gone overboard. Sexual sin is predatory. It won’t be “healed” by redeeming the context or the genders. Sexual sin must simply be killed. What is left of your sexuality after this annihilation is up to God. But healing, to the sexual sinner, is death; nothing more and nothing less.
From the context, I think it’s clear that Butterfield is making an anti-Pelagian point. She’s saying that what we sexual sinners need is not a touch-up operation that amounts to little more than a project of moral self-improvement. What we need, instead, is total, absolute surrender—death to the entirety of our old ways of thinking and living, and rebirth on God’s terms. So, for instance, she goes on to say that a lot of young Christians think their pornography addictions will be cured if they can just get married. (A misreading of 1 Corinthians 7:9, I might add.) But no, Butterfield says, “Marriage does not redeem sin. Only Jesus can do that.” The project of self-salvation, even with something sanctified like marriage, is doomed from the get-go.
Now, the reason I’ve been thinking about this is that it could be read as antithetical to the work we’re trying to do here at SF. We say things like this: Our same-sex love can “express itself as chaste friendship or mystical approach to God rather than as gay sex.” Which could imply that we think our being gay shouldn’t be surrendered to daily death so much as it should be reinterpreted or redeemed or reformed.
In a moving video, Pope Francis speaks about Christian unity to an American Pentecostal conference. He expresses his joy that that the conference attendees have come together to worship God, and speaks movingly of the simple grammar of the language of the heart: love God, love our neighbor.
I was providing a training for counselors recently, and at one point we were discussing the concept of congruence, which I was describing as an end goal in a counseling process I had helped co-develop with Warren Throckmorton (referred to as Sexual Identity Therapy). The thinking is that when you counsel someone who experiences a conflict between their sexual identity and their religious identity, you want to help them resolve that conflict; that resolution can be thought of as congruence. The experience of congruence may look different for different people.
When I think of congruence, I am thinking of helping a person live his/her life and form an identity in keeping with his/her beliefs and values. I came across the idea of congruence among gay Christians when I conducted a series of studies of sexual minority Christians. (“Sexual minority” in the mainstream LGBT literature refers to people who experience same-sex attraction whether or not they identify as LGBT or report same-sex behavior.) In any case, I was comparing those who integrated their attractions with a gay Christian identity and those Christians who dis-identified with a gay identity. If I were to translate this to the SF crowd, I would say that the gay Christian identity was closest to what we might describe as a Side A gay Christian. The group that dis-identified with a gay identity were either closer to what readers here would think of as Side B gay Christians (in terms of not viewing same-sex relationships as morally permissible) but without the “gay” identification, if that makes sense.
I’ve been following the events surrounding Rosaria Butterfield’s recent visit to Wheaton College, where over 100 students held a demonstration prior to chapel demanding more than a single story be shared.* The students seem concerned that others might use her story prescriptively to say all gay or same sex attracted people should experience a similar transformation that leads to heterosexual marriage. A number of the students also seem concerned that Wheaton is not open to acknowledging the larger conversation regarding the morality of gay relationships, and they want to see Wheaton interacting with more progressive interpretations of Scripture on this point (which I won’t get into here).
I’ve been fascinated by Rosaria’s story since I read it last year. The first few chapters of her book gripped me with sentences like: “This word—conversion—is simply too tame and too refined to capture the train wreck that I experienced in coming face-to-face with the Living God.” That resonates with me—her entire story of coming face to face with the Living God (and being transformed from the inside out) resonates with me. Then she marries a man. She marries a man, has children, home schools her children, and now leads a radically different life than the one she led as a “queer activist” and professor at Syracuse. That doesn’t resonate with me.
“How then shall we live?”
In every culture, human beings must face and find answers to this question. However, there is no single, universally shared language and or set of categories for thinking about the question. Instead, each culture develops its own—more or less adequate—way of thinking and speaking about how we ought to act toward each other.
Recent discussions of the language of sexual identity have gotten me thinking about a more general question: how should thinking Christians engage with moral questions generally in a culture, like our own, that has confused and poorly constructed moral categories? (I apologize in advance for a very philosophical post.)
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued against the various conceptual frameworks for understanding morality that emerged from the enlightenment, arguing that they had to fail. The key problem he identifies with post-enlightenment approaches to morality is the rejection of teleology.
A priest I know—we’ll call him Thomas—had studied in Rome as a seminarian some years ago. While there, he had become good friends with an English seminarian, Joseph, and the two would regularly spend hours walking through the Eternal City and talking. One day, they were walking through a Roman garden, and Joseph slipped his arm into Thomas’, drawing close as they walked. Instantly, Thomas tensed up, caught off-guard and uneasy.
Joseph turned to him and laughed: “Tom, you’re such an American. Relax. I just want to be close to you.”
* * *
We tend to think that touch and sight are things we simply do. We rarely contemplate how these senses are learned, how we not only touch and see, but also touch and see well or badly.
A lot of information (and misinformation) has been swirling around concerning a recent report by the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child which criticizes the Catholic Church. Among the claims that keep being repeated is that the UN has called on the Church to “change its teaching” on homosexuality. It’s a claim repeated gloatingly by some in the media (“see, we told Catholics they were wrong, now the UN says so”), and with outrage by Catholic commentators (“how dare those liberal desk-drivers at the UN tell the Church what to do!”). But is it actually true? And, either way, what difference does it make to our efforts to reach out to the LGBT community?