Simone Weil once scribbled down the following “method of investigation,” as she called it: “as soon as one has arrived at any position, try to find in what sense the contrary is true.” Ever since I first read that sentence, I’ve wanted to get it tattooed on my forearm—or at least placarded prominently over my writing desk.
Weil’s “method” explains the appeal to me of my favorite kind of writing—the kind that takes a too-neat, too-tidy narrative and shows how I’ve settled for more simplicity than is warranted. I loved, for instance, this sentence from a book review I read a couple of days ago, LaVonne Neff’s take on Jeanne Murray Walker’s The Geography of Memory: “These are my roots, Walker is saying: … my family’s fundamentalist church, full of answers and rules but also full of love.” As soon as Neff evokes the image of a “fundamentalist church” that we were expecting, she immediately prevents us from holding onto it in any straightforward way: this was a church full of care and warmth, in spite of the narrowness.
Always saying “it’s complicated” can be a bad thing. But it also helps to guard against hasty generalizations that could prove to be genuinely harmful to people.
Here’s what prompted this.
I was recently reading my friend Sean Doherty’s testimony of his involvement, as a man who experiences same-sex attraction, in various evangelical parishes in the UK. Sean’s story is deeply encouraging, insofar as it includes sentences like this: “At university I said I was gay, and I never experienced homophobic treatment from other Christians…. [L]ove and acceptance was my consistent experience…. I found the church to be a deeply supportive and affirming place. I was nurtured, given responsibility in ministry, and encouraged towards ordination.” That is a wonderful story that needs to be told. And Sean’s main point—that “homophobia” and “traditional Christian belief about marriage and celibacy” aren’t equivalent—is one that needs spelling out, as Sean does: “[L]ove and unconditional acceptance of gay people does not require approval of same-sex sexual activity…. [M]y experience has convinced me that this prejudice and mistreatment does not come from believing what the Bible says about marriage and sex.”
But—to complicate matters!—I worry about the unintended effects of this approach. For instance, let’s say you’re an eighteen-year-old kid, gay, and, so far, not out to any of your fellow Christians. And let’s say a Christian friend of yours who’s also gay assures you, “My experience in various churches has been overwhelmingly positive. And the reports you’ve heard about homophobic Christians are greatly exaggerated.” Maybe that advice will be the final push you need to tell your story to your friends at church. But it could just as easily backfire, causing you to reject the church altogether, when your experience turns out to be decidedly more negative than your friend’s.
What we need are three-dimensional stories—stories that highlight the successes and the failures of our churches, without downplaying either one. The culture wars tempt us toward one-sidedness; if we’re on the conservative side, we want to deflect the charge of homophobia, and if we’re on the liberal side, we want to expose the dangers of fundamentalism. But the truest stories rarely lend themselves to such strategies, and defensiveness is never the best, or most effective, apologetic approach.
(On the apologetic issue: I often think about a line from Paul Griffiths’ review of David Bentley Hart’s rejoinder to the “new atheists”, in which Griffiths criticizes Hart for insisting on Christianity’s innocence in some of the mass slaughters of the twentieth century: “This isn’t seemly. Better to have quietly noted the size of the corpse-piles, about which no one can reasonably disagree, to have repented of whatever degree of Christian complicity there might have been in producing them, and to mourn.”)
My own story is full of good and bad. I’ve written elsewhere about the remarkably sensitive—albeit profoundly uninformed—pastoral guidance I received at the church I attended in college. I’m still grateful for those experiences that helped me find the courage to speak truthfully about myself and learn to rely on friends and spiritual directors. And yet, shortly thereafter, I had an experience that was utterly disheartening, at a different church. It was a place I knew well, and where I was known. I had come out to one, but not all, of the pastors, who had assured me that I had his support. On a couple of occasions, before coming out publicly, I had preached at a couple of Sunday services at this church. But when it became widely known that I was gay, the lead pastors removed the audio recordings of my old sermons from the church’s website, and one prominent family ended up leaving the church, telling the pastors that they hadn’t gone far enough in distancing themselves from me in the wake of my coming out. (This family felt that simply having same-sex attraction, even while remaining celibate, was enough to disqualify someone from Christian ministry.)
Soon thereafter I moved to England to start graduate school. Through a lot of emotional ups and downs, largely relating to my sexuality, the pastoral staff of my church provided constant and specific encouragement. I was not only cared for privately, when I needed frank conversation and guidance; I was also entrusted with public ministries (preaching, teaching, praying, etc.). By then my book was out, so everyone knew about my sexual orientation. No one, however, gave a hint that it somehow placed me in a spiritually compromised position, or that it formed any kind of barrier to my full inclusion in the church’s life. And many of the church members were eager to talk with me explicitly about singleness, loneliness, hospitality, friendship—the kind of things I needed and wanted to talk about with them. Whenever I imagine the church really being the church, I usually picture my church in England. I felt honored, welcomed, and wanted there.
I could go on in this vein for some time. And yet there are other, sadder stories too. I was recently with a respected Christian leader, who has said publicly that he appreciates my witness as a celibate gay Christian, who, while sitting next to me at lunch, told a crass joke that mocked the effeminacy of particular LGBT people he knew. I’m not sure he thought of how this might sound to me—surely he must have?—but it underscored to me, one more time, why I won’t say, “The church isn’t homophobic.” That judgment is just too black and white. What Alexander Solzhenitsyn said about the individual is also true of the church as a gathered community: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties, but through every human heart.” The church, along with each believer, is, in the Reformation slogan, simul iustus et peccator—simultaneously righteous and sinful.
Again, I could go on. Currently, while I’m being encouraged by my priest to think about pursuing ordination, I am hearing from friends of mine who, in the last couple of years, have lost their jobs at Christian institutions for coming out as gay and celibate.
Contradictions and complications abound. Where does this leave me?
To return to my hypothetical eighteen-year-old gay Christian, I’d want to say to him that the church is indispensable. You can’t be a Christian without getting your hands dirty by joining the visible, institutional gathering of Christ’s followers. And, by grace, you will no doubt find more acceptance and love than you anticipate. You will, in the same community, find misunderstanding, callous disregard of your experience, petty insecurity that prompts people to make hurtful remarks, fear that leads people to give you a wide berth, and much else besides. What will keep you there, in the end, won’t be the measurable progress the church makes in abandoning its ignorance and prejudices. Such progress may or may not come in the visible ways you want it to, on the timetable you hope it will. Instead, what will keep you coming back to church is the promise of Christ that he has bound himself to this people, to this proclaimed Word and to this bread and wine. I won’t tell you the church isn’t homophobic, but I’ll try long and hard to convince you that the church is the place where Christ wants to love you.