Against Christian Triumphalism

I had a piece published yesterday over at First Things on how we might avoid moralistic striving in the same-sex marriage debates in the church. Drawing on the work of the twentieth-century French Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac, I talked about the need for grace to pervade the way we talked about sexual holiness:

Sexual abstinence is not an end in itself, [Mauriac] says, undertaken to demonstrate one’s own moral heroism. Our purity of mind and body is rather, firstly, for the sake of love for Christ—“His love does not allow any sharing”—and, secondly, for the sake of those whom Christ loves, for the sake of honoring the sanctity of the bodies and souls to whom we are attracted. “We have to be pure,” Mauriac writes, “in order to give ourselves to others, for Christ’s love is love for others.”

And the only way such purity is achievable in Christian lives is not by white-knuckled effort but by receiving a love whose sweetness somehow exceeds what we naturally think we want. “Christ,” Mauriac concludes, “is ready to substitute Himself in a sovereign and absolute way for that hunger and thirst, to substitute another thirst and another hunger.” The Sermon on the Mount is more carrot than pitchfork: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” The allure of the beatific vision, not the threat of punishment, is what Jesus uses to motivate the ascetic regime.

In retrospect, I’m not sure “against moralism/Pelagianism” was the right way to frame my essay. I think what I was attempting to critique is maybe more accurately described as “triumphalism.” On the pro-Christian-same-sex-marriage side, so much of the rhetoric can make it sound as though gay marriage is basically tantamount to salvation for gay people. Finding a same-sex mate and being able to express oneself sexually is given such elevated importance in these sort of statements that it really can sound as if being saved were at stake. I don’t know a better word for it than triumphalism.

But on the other hand, traditionalist Christian arguments for abstinence from gay sex can come off as just as blithely optimistic, as if sexual discipline were (a) pretty simple and easy to put into practice and (b) in and of itself somehow grace-giving. And that’s equally triumphalistic in its own way. I wanted to try to write a piece that would counter both of those emphases.

I often think in this connection about a pithy little line from the Christian writer Rodney Clapp: “Early Christians were seen as atheists because they rejected the proposition that Caesar saves. Christians [today] would be little less revolutionary in their ‘atheism’ if they now rejected the proposition that sex saves.” Amen.

And I would just add that we traditionalists/conservatives could be pretty revolutionary in rejecting the idea that celibacy or “traditional marriage” saves either.

9 thoughts on “Against Christian Triumphalism

  1. Hi Wes –
    I’m not sure you fairly represent the affirming viewpoints. Most affirming Christians are not saying that gay partnership is a goal, but rather theology that compels celibacy is damaging. Covenental partnership can be a part of the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit on the lives of queer folks and straight folks alike. Beliefs that faithful gay people are not worthy of that blessing and therefore must be closed to relationship are injurious. Most triumphalism from affirming Christians is really serving the more urgent message – the suffering and tragedy caused by traditionalist doctrine is both unecessary and unjust and needs to stop.

  2. I think that, for me, the realization that celibacy was not only attainable, but also not the horrible punishment that I always considered it to be was such a huge shift in my worldview that I almost saw it as similar to a salvation experience. I suppose, in reality, it was much closer to a renewing of my faith and, in some ways, my trust in God.

    • Then you have found the real meaning of celibacy. I think that what Wes is trying to say is that we, humans, can make an idol of anything, including celibacy. But what I think happen to you is different, you saw a way to Christ through celubacy, that’s definetly salvation.

  3. “…for the sake of honoring the sanctity of the bodies and the souls to whom we are attracted.” Yes, this is truly loving my neighbor/brother as Christ loves them. Beautifully articulated. I find myself somewhat distanced culturally from what you are articulating with regards to the triumphalism, but I see the same principle holding true in issues such as the “warrior” masculinity theology that holds sway in certain circles.

  4. Wes, I really appreciated this post and your First Things article, and I’m curious if you think there can be a similar triumphalism in some Christian arguments about the importance of community. I think without meaning to, we can sometimes imply that committed friendships and local-church involvement, in all their admittedly messy beauty, are still somehow exempt from the nastiest tendencies of the fallen world we live in.

    I bring this up as someone who spent many years in a church community that emphasized commitment, sharing everyday life, spiritual growth by accountability to each other, shared study of Scripture, etc. In many ways it was a very beautiful thing, and deep spiritual growth resulted. Folks tended to give those “spiritual friendships” priority over, for instance, their extended families, advancement in their careers, etc. It never occurred to me that the whole thing could be off balance until it came crashing down in some rather spectacular ways. It turned out that our shared commitment had not prevented destructive secret addictions, infidelity, deception, manipulation, and a bunch of other things we thought we had left behind.

    The “easy” way out of a broken community is to write off community altogether, but I don’t believe Scripture or the history of the church allow us to do that. Spiritual friendship is a beautiful thing, even as we recognize its brokenness.

    Anyway, as a long-time reader of your blog (and then a reader of this one) I’m looking forward to your book, and curious for your thoughts on how we can approach spiritual friendship in a non-triumphalist way.

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