On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested. The charges didn’t initially include his involvement in a plot on Hitler’s life (those details would emerge later); they were, rather, lackluster accusations related to his trip to the UK, his avoidance of military service, and other “minor” offenses to do with incendiary speech and assistance to the non-state sanctioned church. Soon he was transferred from a Gestapo cell to the military prison at Tegel. And it was there, finally, that Bonhoeffer tried to put into words the faith he had come to embrace.
Much of what he wrote was centered around [his closest friend Eberhard] Bethge, whom Marsh’s portrayal foregrounds. Bonhoeffer loved Bethge in a way he never loved anyone else, not even his (much younger) fiancée, Maria. “[T]he human,” he wrote, “is created in such a way that we seek not the many but the one particular.” (Again, Bonhoeffer rejected the monastic preference for companies rather than pairs.) One could speculate that Bonhoeffer was a homosexual, albeit a celibate one, but Marsh wisely avoids any clear-cut verdict on that score. He lingers over the relationship, revealing its depth and intensity in a way no other scholar has attempted. But what emerges most clearly from that close attention is not a homoerotically inclined Bonhoeffer to the exclusion of a “quite normal” one (to use Bethge’s designation for his friend) but a Bonhoeffer whose zeal for intimacy and filial, spiritual closeness complicates and overflows the categories by which we often classify such things. I think here of Rowan Williams’ conclusion that romantic love and the love of same-sex friendship are best understood as “different forms of one passion—the passion for life-giving interconnection.”
Perhaps it was the austerity of the war years that made Bonhoeffer eschew the timidity of expression he might otherwise have disciplined himself to observe in his friendship with Bethge (“[I]n the months here in prison I have had quite a terrible longing,” he exclaimed in one of his letters). Or perhaps the reason for his pursuit of such a friendship was deeper than merely a consciousness of time having grown short. Perhaps it was owing, more fundamentally, to what Bonhoeffer had come to see as the way to embody the faith and spirituality he had long sought. “God, the Eternal,” he wrote to Bethge in 1944, “wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of cantus firmus”—the primary musical voice to which other voices in a polyphonic composition relate in counterpoint. God is found and known and loved in the world, in relationships, in the love between human beings, “in a few people one wants to see and with whom one wishes to be together,” Bonhoeffer said. If true, it was an experience of God he would only know for a few months longer. He was executed in April 1945, just before the Allied forces arrived to liberate the Nazi prisons but not before he had asked Bethge to save his prison letters for possible publication. It was one of the last exchanges Bonhoeffer had with “the man who was his soul mate,” and, thus, it seems to be the most natural, the most intimate, lens through which to view Bonhoeffer’s entire life.
I’ve been rooting around on the internet for Christian resources aimed at helping transgender people and their parents. It’s a bit of wasteland. Most of the articles that you can find aren’t even intended to be helpful to someone who is dealing with this – the pastoral needs of trans people seem to get eclipsed by the political drive to defend marriage and sexual complementarity. What does exist tends either to vilify transfolk, or it oversimplifies the issues.
I think that there are several key misconceptions about transfolks that allow that largely negative response to be perpetuated. I’d like to briefly treat six of them here.
I was talking a bit this week with Todd Billings, who is a professor of Reformed theology at Western Seminary in Holland Michigan, and he passed along an essay he wrote when he was single and in his late twenties. The piece is a reflection of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity, and I found it very engaging.
Gregory’s vision of virginal life is one of fullness, not absence. “The more we come to know the wealth of virginity the more we have disdain for the other life, having learned from the comparison how many precious things it lacks.” Divided love — non-virginal love — is poor love.
Indeed, while Seinfeld’s Elaine would be horrified at the thought, Gregory calls attention to the “freedom of virginity.” The virginal soul, its attachments rooted in God, has freedom from “greed, anger, hatred, the desire for empty fame and all such things.” Since the virginal soul does not seek after these other loves, it is not a slave to them. It is free to be a bride of Christ.
Further, for Gregory, virginity is not a curse or an accident, but a “gift” with great “grandeur.” It does not result from God’s failing to provide someone to love, but from “grace.” The virgin anticipates the time when there will be “no distance between himself and the presence of God.” To experience a foretaste of eternal life with God is far from an accident.
We have grown accustomed to seeing virginity in terms of lack — an empty bed, a Valentine’s Day spent alone. But Gregory reverses the imagery. Virginity is a special foretaste of the divine presence, an anticipation of the resurrected state where believers are especially suited to experience this presence. Moreover, for Gregory, virginity is an “ally” and a friend. It accompanies us on the Christian path of rejecting the worldly loves that threaten to displace our love for God. For the Christian, virginity is not about loneliness. Indeed, for the Christian, it is impossible to be a virgin alone.
The whole essay is thoughtful and accessible—do read it all—and it’s doubly encouraging to me to think of it originally being published in the ecumenical magazine Regeneration Quarterly, which had a sizable evangelical readership when it was still in print. Sometimes working against their own history and current church cultures, many Reformed and more broadly Reformational evangelicals whom I know want to try to rediscover and honor celibacy in their churches today. May their tribe increase.
A lot of what I say in the piece grew out of conversations here at SF, and I am truly grateful to you all for reading and thinking with me over the past months about these things. A fuller version will appear in my forthcoming book, but until then, here’s a teaser trailer:
I imagine a future in the church when the call to chastity would no longer sound like a dreary sentence to lifelong loneliness for a gay Christian like me. I imagine Christian communities in which friendships are celebrated and honored—where it’s normal for families to live near or with single people; where it’s expected that celibate gay people would form significant attachments to other single people, families, and pastors; where it’s standard practice for friends to spend holidays together or share vacations; where it’s not out of the ordinary for friends to consider staying put, resisting the allure of constant mobility, for the sake of their friendships. I imagine a church where genuine love isn’t located exclusively or even primarily in marriage, but where marriage and friendship and other bonds of affection are all seen as different forms of the same love we all are called to pursue.
By shifting our practice of friendship to a more committed, honored form of love, we can witness—above all—to a kingdom in which the ties between spiritual siblings are the strongest ties of all. Marriage, Jesus tells us, will be entirely transformed in the future, barely recognizable to those who know it in its present form (Matt. 22:30). Bonds of biology, likewise, are relativized in Jesus’ world (Mark 3:31–35). But the loves that unite Christians to each other across marital, racial, and familial lines are loves that will last. More than that, they are loves that witness that Christ’s love is available to all. Not everyone can be a parent or a spouse, but anyone and everyone can be a friend.
The seminary where I teach, Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, is hosting a conference on October 10-11 that I hope many of you will be able to attend. We’re calling it “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Finding Paths to Ministry,” and SF’s own Mark Yarhouse, Melinda Selmys, and Eve Tushnet (along with yours truly) will be featured speakers. Further details are here, the schedule is here, and the registration page is here.
Here’s the way we’re pitching the conference:
How can our churches speak the Good News of Jesus Christ to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer neighbors? And how can their faith and discipleship be nurtured so that they, in turn, can use their gifts and exercise their ministries in our churches? “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction” is a conference designed to explore these questions. The historic biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality affirms that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, requiring fidelity and chastity, while the chaste single state is equally honored and celebrated. Such teaching requires sacrifice and discipline on the part of gay Christians (as it does for all Christians), but it also affirms the blessings and opportunities that gay people bring to the life of faith. “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction” will provide a forum in which to examine these questions for the sake of Christian witness in our world today.
I really hope many of you will be able to join us! And even if you can’t come, please help spread the word!
UPDATE: There’s also a very similar conference happening at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis a couple of weeks later, October 24-25. Details are here. If you can’t make it to Pittsburgh, join us in St. Louis!
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.
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.
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.
Aleksander 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.
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.
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.”