Wit and paradox

Over the last decade or so, I have had the chance to interact in one way or another with hundreds of men and women who are striving to be faithful to the traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality. For many of them, this has been a terrible burden, a source of grief, loneliness, and much else besides. Along the way, I have seen many give up on chastity, or give up on faith. I, too, have struggled many times with the question of whether it is worth it, or whether this is a misguided teaching that causes unnecessary suffering.

How should I try to make sense of this?

I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”

— Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

Emma Thompson: WitOne of the stories that has been particularly helpful to me in thinking about these struggles is Emma Thompson’s Wit. Thompson plays Dr. Vivian Bearing, a literature professor specializing in the poetry of John Donne, who is diagnosed with advanced metastatic ovarian cancer.

As the film unfolds, we watch Dr. Bearing’s health deteriorate, as she experiences the intense side-effects (pain, fever, chills, vomiting, immune system suppression) of the chemotherapy she is receiving.

At a certain point, Dr. Bearing’s ability to resist infection becomes so impaired by the cancer treatments that she has to be placed in an isolation unit.

I am not in isolation because I have cancer, because I have a tumor the size of a grapefruit. No. I am in isolation because I am being treated for cancer. My treatment imperils my health. Herein lies the paradox. John Donne would revel in it. I would revel in it if he wrote a poem about it. My students would flounder in it, because paradox is too difficult to understand.

Think of it as a puzzle, I would tell them, an intellectual game. Or I would have done, were it a game. Which it is not.

I rather wish John Donne had written that poem. If he had, I would quote it here, and no doubt the rest of this blog post would be easier to write, as a commentary on Donne’s words.

As it is, I am left to my own devices.

If I had spent the last few years as an oncologist, rather than as a philosopher who occasionally writes about gay issues, I also would have seen much suffering. Patients would come to me with cancer, and under my treatment, many of their lives would get worse. They would suffer because of the treatments they received. The treatment would hurt them in ways that the cancer would not. And many would not recover. For them, there would be no happy ending, at least as far as this world is concerned.

Yet the fact that cancer treatment imperils the patient’s health is not an argument against oncology; it is, as Dr. Bearing recognizes, a paradox.

Turning back to the struggles that many endure as they strive to be celibate, it is not surprising that many do not understand how it could be part of the will of a loving God to put someone through such struggles—people flounder because paradox is difficult.

Yet at least for me, to see the suffering as the side effects of treatment makes sense. I have persevered in faith long enough to know that spiritual growth is full of paradox. He who loses his life will save it. Even struggles with temptation and sin can lead, through repentance, to much deeper spiritual wisdom.

This is not to say that there are not unhealthy and destructive ways of pursuing celibacy.

The same is true in medicine: just because someone has cancer does not mean that just any treatment will automatically be good simply because it is painful. Leeches, for example, cause suffering but are not an effective treatment. (Snakebite would be even more painful than leaches, I assume, but that would not make the Black Mamba an effective treatment option.)

Those of us who preach celibacy have a very serious responsibility to test our practices, and adhere to the principle “first, do no harm.”

Still, Dr. Bearing’s soliloquy gave me a new perspective on the suffering that I’ve seen in others, and on my own struggles, as well.

If you haven’t seen Wit, do so. It is in some ways a terribly depressing film, one of the saddest I have ever seen. But it is also one of the most profoundly life-affirming.

Again, the paradox.

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

15 thoughts on “Wit and paradox

  1. I had the great fortune of seeing Margaret Edson’s marvelous play Wit on Broadway shortly after my own mother’s death. I haven’t yet seen the film adaptation, so I cannot speak specifically to the play, but it strikes me as odd that you would find a play that specifically contrasts icy erudition with the human need for comfort and affirmation to be a talking point for the comfortless and, for most of us, impossible prescription of celibacy or chastity.

    I challenge your metaphor. Homosexual orientation is not a cancer. You do untold harm to yourself and to others to repeat this falsehood.

    If God has called you to celibacy, I affirm you in pursuing that vocation, but I refuse to believe that the God who created all human beings in His own image — male and female — the God whose beloved Son never spoke a word of condemnation to any sexual minority has given us all this terrible burden of our sexuality and demands of us only chastity. Way back in Genesis we find the reason “it is not good for a man to be alone.”

    Love is of God and everyone who loves knows God for God is love.

    My friends and I have devoted much of our time and energy over the past few months counseling people who have been driven to the brink of suicide by these destructive teachings from six verses found in scripture (six of over 31,000).

    Again, if celibacy is your vocation and your choice, God bless you and keep you steadfast in it. But you had better be very careful in presupposing the will of God for your LGBT brothers and sisters.

    Jeffrey Hoffman
    provisional Executive Director
    (the alternative alumni group for LGBTQIA alumni and former students of Bob Jones University)

  2. Hi, Jeffrey, and thank you for taking the time to comment.

    I want to start off by saying that although I don’t know the situation of LGBT students at Bob Jones University well, I have heard some horror stories. From what little I have heard, I am not surprised to hear that many students have been pushed to the brink of suicide by the way Bob Jones University handles the situation.

    Let me begin by saying that nothing I have written should be taken as defending the way many Christians treat LGBT people. Again, although I do not know the details of the situation at Bob Jones University, what little I do know disturbs me (and not just on LGBT issues: this is a university that, until 2000, banned interracial dating: words fail).

    On the About page for this blog, we wrote, “We embrace the traditional understanding that God created us male and female, and that His plan for sexual intimacy is only properly fulfilled in the union of husband and wife in marriage. However, this blog was born out of frustration with the prevailing narratives about homosexuality from those who embrace this traditionally Christian sexual ethic: an excessive focus on political issues, and the ubiquity of reparative therapy in one form or another.”

    Part of the difficulty here is that you believe gay sex is ok with God, and I do not. I do not base that belief only on 6 verses. As I argued in my “Great Debate” essay, it is woven much more deeply into Christian belief than that.

    Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network, agrees with you that God will bless gay relationships. But in this blog post, he points out why “if celibacy is your vocation and your choice, God bless you and keep you steadfast in it” is not a respectful compromise for people like you, who believe God blesses gay relationships to offer to people like me, who do not.

    Given where you are coming from, I understand why you reject the metaphor. But I didn’t write this post to convince people like you. I was speaking to others who embrace the traditional teaching and are frustrated in their efforts to live it, trying to help them see how to make sense of the struggle.

    A few days ago, I received an e-mail from a reader of this blog which read:

    I think this conversation on spiritual friendship is exactly what is needed, particular for those who, like me, are thinking, “Okay, I have intellectually committed to a life of celibacy and singleness, but what now? How do I live this out on a day to day basis? What does properly ordered celibacy look like for the gay Christian?”

    I understand that you are taking a different approach. But none of the arguments you offer are new to me. I’ve spent over fifteen years talking about this stuff with Justin Lee, whose arguments for gay relationships are much more persuasive than yours. But, despite a lot of very thoughtful discussion, I’m not convinced. And I realize that there’s a lot of stuff out there defending the traditional teaching. You presumably have read it, and you are not convinced, either.

    But it wouldn’t do any good for me to criticize what you are doing at lgbt-bju.org starting from the assumption that I was right about gay sex. You wouldn’t find what I had to say convincing. And, by the same token, I don’t find it very convincing when you criticize what we’re doing here at Spiritual Friendship based on beliefs about the Bible which I do not accept.

    I don’t want to just fall into moral relativism or equivalence here. I think I’m right, and I have been willing to defend that belief at great length (see the link to the Great Debate above, or some of the essays on my website. But I realize that intelligent people are not convinced, and I recognize that if you don’t accept those arguments, you won’t understand why we are doing what we’re doing on this blog. I wouldn’t show up on lgbt-bju.org to argue from the assumption that gay sex is wrong, mainly because I would know that this would be an unproductive way to enter the conversation.

    P.S. I should add that although I was speaking about struggles with sexual desire, I do not think that the point is limited to sex, nor was I singling out homosexuality for special attention. This is a general point about struggling with sin. Anyone who seeks to overcome any sin may go through a great deal of frustration and struggle along the way. But, given the focus of the blog, I talked specifically about the struggles of Christians who believe gay sex is wrong and are trying to live by that.

  3. Ron,

    Full disclosure, I am a friend of Jeffrey Hoffman. I also went to Bob Jones University.

    What I find completely lacking and shallow about your “tradiional” views on this topic is the clear avoidance of your own truth. You spend so much time researching texts to show you God’s truth, but you seemingly ignore the physical and emotional truths that God has given you.

    I’ll be brief and blunt. I am exclusively attracted to men. God gave me a sex organ and a desire to use it. (We all learned in our early teens that if we did nothing with this organ it would do something on its own and usually at night). These are facts about me. These are my truths. What are you gaining by ignoring your own truths? You think it will bring you closer to God to suffer? Does God want you to suffer? God wouldn’t want you to responsibly discover and claim your own truths?

    Once I stopped looking at the Bible for ALL my answers regarding my sexuality, I was finally able to get “unstuck” in my thinking. The concept that gay sex in a monogamous relationship is still “wrong” in God’s eyes is nothing but self mascacism. You suffer needlessly. Trying looking somewhere other than Scripture for your truth about sexuality….. look in yourself.


    • I will just say, James, that I hardly spend any time poring over Scripture, trying to find reasons to believe same-sex intercourse is wrong. I frankly find it a pointless exercise. I spend more time thinking about what it means to be gay in the context of that belief.

  4. Living a life of meaningful celibacy requires looking deep within to discover the truth of one’s own vocation. I have personally discovered a great variety of how people committed to celibacy live out their vocation. Discerning how God intends for an individual to live requires consistent dialogue in union with Him. Without looking inside of myself, I will never find the unique aspects of God’s image imparted at my very core.

    And James, with all due respect, I find your sentence of “God gave me a sex organ and a desire to use it” to be very crude in the context of Christian discipleship. This formulation could be used to validate the presence of any sexual desire, especially associated with “open relationships” where people have sex simply by mutual agreement.

    Solzhenitsyn wrote as he was imprisoned in a Gulag, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.” As Christians, I believe we have a responsibility to discern the difference between the life-giving and the death-dealing desires of our hearts. Just because I want to do something does not mean that it will be, in fact, a life-giving action.

  5. James,

    In what sense is Ron ignoring his own truths? Why are traditional values shallow?

    If you “look in yourself” for the truth, how do you avoid self-deception?

    • Joe,

      I can’t speak for James, but in my faith tradition, the witness of the Holy Spirit is available within all baptized believers. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, meekness, faith and temperance. It really isn’t that difficult to be a gay Christian. Jesus says “my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Come unto me and I will give you rest.”

      Jeffrey Hoffman

      • Not sure if any of you have seen this young man’s presentation. Even thought it was heavily scripture focused, he did a wonderful job of making the Scriptures personal for him…. for who he is. He wants a family. It is not good for man to be alone.

        How do we avoid self deception? I ask you how we avoid misinterpretation of Scripture?

        I know myself…. my motives… my purpose…. my joys… my desires and needs much better than I will ever fully understand the 2000 year old Scriptures.

      • James

        I attended Pride events before this kid was born. I spoke out in favour of gay marriage in the 1980s. More recently, like Ron, “I have had the chance to interact in one way or another with hundreds of men and women who are striving to be faithful to the traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality.”

        If you listen to the stories of these men and women you will discover very few of them are completely unaware that they could be living more fulfilled lives (in worldly terms) if they gave up on chastity – or even faith.

  6. I would remind everyone that this post is a reflection on the challenges of living a celibate life in light of the story in Wit. Very little of the commentary on this thread has had anything more than the most tangential relationship to the topic of the thread itself.

    I have been more than generous in approving every comment submitted on this thread. But most of the commentary has consisted of amateur attempts to psychoanalyze me. My beliefs (which I have explained in some depth elsewhere) are dismissed without any significant argument, and assumptions are made about my emotional state without any reliable basis.

    I am more than willing to enter into intelligent discussion about either my beliefs or my experiences, and have a long history of doing so. But in order for any discussion to be productive, it needs to involve an attempt to listen to and understand where the other person is coming from.

    I’m going to try to read through the stories on lgbt-bju.org, and I will be happy to engage with those when I’ve had a chance to understand. It would be pointless for me to say more now, without having a chance to think more deeply about where you are coming from.

    I’m also more than willing to engage with those who want to engage with the arguments I have actually made, and the experiences I have actually described.

    In the meantime, I would invite readers to focus more directly on the themes in this blog post. I would especially point out that the title contains the word “paradox.” That should provide a hint that whatever I am saying, it is an idea that contains a lot of tension within it: it is not some sort of simple fundamentalism. Those who read me as a simple fundamentalist are quite possibly misreading me quite badly.

    In Christ,

    – Ron

    • Ron,

      I apologize for getting the tread off track. This was my first visit to your blog and the very first paragraph is what I was primarily responding to. While some of my comments may have come across as bad psychoanalysis, I was only drawing on my own experiences trying to sort it all out. I have scores of friends that went through the same process…. many of which are on the lgbt – bju blog.

      It is frustrating for me to see so many who approach their sexuality with a line drawn in the sand that says celibacy is the only outlet. I was there for several years before my reading of Scripture changed….. before I allowed my own spirit to have a say in the discussion. I have come to see my sexuality as a good thing…. not a cancer to be suffered. I strongly believe that my life is meant to be shared, and there are plenty of scriptures that point to that fact.

      I will spend more time reading more of your story and blog.

  7. Ron, I appreciate your post. It is helpful for those of us who are living out a single, celibate life. The concept that the medicine might cause pain before it brings healing reminds me of Jesus’ words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24).

    The idea that we must die in order to bear fruit is paradoxical and an unwelcome message to most. It requires the illumination of the Spirit to understand how death actually leads to life.

    On another note–Jeffrey mentioned the illumination of the Spirit. I agree that we can learn truth through the Spirit and this experiential. In fact, that has played a significant role in affirming to me that God does not bless same-sex unions. For those who are interested in learning more about how we discern the Spirit’s voice in our experience, I highly recommend the discernment practices passed down to us from Ignatius of Loyola a priest who lived in the early 1500s. There is a lot of depth to this, but just to get a simple introduction, see this site:

  8. Pingback: Can People with Same-Sex Attractions Really be Christians? | Unique for A Reason - Minnesota Catholic Conference - Minnesota Marriage Amendment - Catholic Teaching on Marriage

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