The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention is hosting a Summit from April 21 to 23, and the topic is “The Gospel and Human Sexuality.” Last night, after the panel had discussed “The Gospel and Homosexuality,” I was scrolling through tweets from people I follow who had been listening in to the livestream. You can access the tweets here, with the hashtag #erlcsummit, and I’ll just note that Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s are the most informative.
It’s probably definitely unwise to make an assessment of a conference based on a Twitter stream, and I’ll almost certainly regret writing this post tomorrow, but a couple of things struck me as especially comment-worthy. (Apparently the video sessions will be available to watch after the summit concludes, which means that I won’t get to them for another day or two.)
First, look at this tweet from Jeff Chu, who’s a journalist with Fast Company and author of a book about being gay and searching for authentic Christian faith in America today:
And then this reply, from Ben Moberg, who’s also gay and a Christian:
It’s a way to dehumanize, reduce people to sexual orientation
Although I used “homosexual” (along with “gay” and other terms) a lot in my Washed and Waiting, I wish I could go back and edit out all those uses for the reason Ben identifies here. Not only is “homosexual” a pretty clinical term, it also doesn’t respect the way most gay people prefer to be identified.
But here’s the other thing. As I was scrolling through all these tweets last night and wondering how I (slowly and imperceptibly, it now seems in retrospect) started thinking of myself as “gay,” I realized that this shift in self-identification coincided with a shift in my understanding of my calling or task as a Christian.
Here’s what I mean: When I initially came out to myself and then to pastors, counselors, family, and friends, I thought that my future should be one of (a) learning to pinpoint the cause of my same-sex attractions in my childhood or adolescence, (b) seeking, if possible, to have those feelings diminished, and (c) seeking, if possible, to get married to someone of the opposite sex.
But as time went on and I talked with counselors and studied more of the relevant literature, I became convinced that there was no one cause (such as absent father, overbearing mother, sexual abuse, failure to bond with same-sex peers, etc.) that explained my sexuality. I fit none of the usual profiles, as I’d heard them articulated by conservative Christians. Nor did my same-sex attractions seem to be diminishing at all. And, consequently, I grew less and less hopeful—not to mention less interested—in the possibility of marriage.
For all those reasons, the story I’d been led to believe was likely true—that I was originally born with a latent opposite-sex attraction that somehow became interrupted or snuffed out somewhere in childhood or adolescence—well, that story started to seem far less compelling than it once had. When you do find that story compelling, perhaps a certain sort of language seems more appropriate to you: You “have” same-sex attractions (implying a set of feelings that’s neatly separable from other inclinations and feelings), or you are “struggling with homosexuality.” But once you begin to entertain the idea that your sexuality was probably shaped by a mysterious mix of biological and environmental factors (parsed by Christian theology as “being born into a fallen world”) then it makes more sense, or at least it did to me, to find a better descriptor for yourself than “I am same-sex attracted.” For me, now, “being gay” seems a much more truthful descriptor of my actual lived experience of my sexuality, in which “the desire to have sex” plays a small part in a much more complex array of feelings, inclinations, proclivities, and preferences.
(I remember, for instance, reading this paragraph from an Eve Tushnet blog post and thinking Yes! This describes my experience too, albeit with the gender of whom I’m attracted to changed: “If sexual desire can be easily tweezed away from nonsexual longing and love and adoration then yeah, sure, I guess I can see the point of calling homosexual desire ‘disordered.’ But that’s not how eros actually works! My lesbianism is part of why I form the friendships I form. It’s part of why I volunteer at a pregnancy center. Not because I’m attracted to the women I counsel, but because my connection to other women does have an adoring and erotic component, and I wanted to find a way to express that connection through works of mercy. My lesbianism is part of why I love the authors I love. It’s inextricable from who I am and how I live in the world. Therefore I can’t help but think it’s inextricable from my vocation.”)
And one more thing about the tweets from the Summit. Here’s Jeff Chu again:
“A woman who gets raped doesn’t get unraped” was just used as parallel for gay person not turning un-gay upon Xn conversion. #erlcsummit
The point the speaker was trying to make, I’m sure, is that even if you think having gay sex is sinful, you still wouldn’t be obliged to think that when a gay person becomes a Christian, their entire pattern of sexual desire and experiences would shift automatically. Nevertheless, Jeff was right to single this statement out for special attention because the parallel—being raped and being gay—is so shockingly, offensively unseemly. Comparing being gay to being sexually violated, just like the comparison of being gay to being a racist, doesn’t begin to do justice to the experience of tenderness and affection and care and kindness that is so much a part of the experiences of gay couples.
On this point, let me quote an earlier post of mine:
The traditional Christian proscription of same-sex sexual partnerships does not require us to draw such specious comparisons or to say that there is nothing good at all in gay partnerships. On the contrary, even Karl Barth, who uncompromisingly rejects homosexual partnerships as out of step with the Creator’s intention, writes that such unions are often “redolent of sanctity” (Church Dogmatics III/4, p. 166) because they are about the struggle to give and receive love.
And then there’s C. S. Lewis’ judgment from Surprised by Joy, which made a big impact on me when I first read it:
People commonly talk as if every other evil were more tolerable than [homosexuality]. But why? … If those of us who have known a school like Wyvern dared to speak the truth, we should have to say that it was, in that time and place, the only foothold or cranny left for certain good things. It was the only counterpoise to the social struggle; the one oasis… in the burning desert of competitive ambition. In his unnatural love-affairs, and perhaps only there, the Blood went a little out of himself, forgot for a few hours that he was One of the Most Important People There Are. It softens the picture.
According to Barth and Lewis, a misdirected expression of eros—and here Barth and Lewis stand with the orthodox Christian teaching on the meaning of marriage and the place of sex—is still a search for genuine love. For the sake of charity and for the sake of truth, we have to acknowledge it as such, even while we still try to point eros to its true fulfillment in Christ.