I’ve been reading a few recent essays on sexual ethics written for a popular audience. A couple of them have focused specifically on homosexuality, and each one draws a strikingly similar contrast. On the one hand, these essays describe a kind of Christian faith that is focused on “certainty,” on “black and white answers,” on “knowing what’s right,” and the arrogant rigidity and coldness that goes along with that. On the other hand, these essays talk about a different sort of Christian faith, one that is more interested in “exploration,” in “questions,” in “living with tension,” in “loving real people where they’re at,” in being willing to brave the “messiness” of “life in the trenches.” (All the quotes here are paraphrases because I’m not trying to single out one author or essay or book for critique. I’m more interested in observing a trend in the reading I’ve been doing.)
In response, I find myself wanting to ask, over and over again:
- Is it possible that the “certainty” that pre-marital sex is a bad idea is itself the result of profound “exploration,” of “living in tension,” or “loving real people”?
- Is it possible that the “black and white answer” of marriage being a covenant between one man and one woman is an answer that’s been forged as Christians have “wrestled” with the “messiness” of “real life”?
- Is it possible that the “rigid, arrogant knowledge” that divorce is something Christians ought to work hard to prevent is the result of a profound “struggle” to “meet people where they’re at”?
- Can we at least entertain the idea, for the sake of argument, that the Christian tradition’s “answers” on sexual ethics aren’t just the product of unexamined patriarchal assumptions and power moves on the part of greedy bishops and priests?
- Can we at least consider the idea that the tradition might have been crafted, in part, from a hard-won, long-sought-after, humane wisdom that knew things about humanity and sexuality that we, in our time, may have forgotten?
I don’t feel angry that Christian authors are asking us all to seek deep, intimate, relational knowledge of the complexity and profundity of LGBTQ Christians’ lives. On the contrary, as a gay Christian myself, I am immensely heartened by this! But I feel sad, or wistful, as I imagine what our discussions might look like if we considered the Christian tradition worthy of at least as much patient listening as we offer each other today.
Every time someone talks about “rigid orthodoxy” or the tyranny of “black and white answers,” I feel like grabbing my copy of Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility or St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Songs or Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain or Luther’s The Estate of Marriage or St. John Chrysostom’s On Virginity and reminding myself that these texts don’t all sound like fundamentalist homophobes. Often they’re as mysterious, elusive, and profound as some of my most treasured conversations with my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. And they’re worth more than their labels—“certain,” “black and white,” “arrogant,” “bigoted”—would often lead you to believe.
Wesley Hill is an assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010). He can be followed on Twitter:@WesleyHill.