As Mark Yarhouse pointed out yesterday, Julie Rodgers (and by extension many of the rest of us who blog here at Spiritual Friendship) has recently been facing criticism from her fellow Christians for the way she describes her sexuality and her faith. She writes:
A gay orientation can be understood as an overall draw toward someone of the same sex, which is usually a desire for a deeper level intimacy with those of the same sex. Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex, a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex. This longing for intimacy is usually experienced as a desire for nearness, for partnership, for close friendship, rich conversation, and an overall appreciation of beauty. The best way I can describe my experience of “being gay” is that with certain women I feel the “it” factor: that sense of chemistry that longs to share life with them, to know and be known by them, to be drawn outside of myself in self-giving love for them. When I feel all Lesbiany, I experience it as a desire to build a home with a woman that will create an energizing love that spills over into the kind of hospitality that actually provides guests with clean sheets and something other than protein bars. Most women feel that chemistry or longing for other men (even though it can’t be reduced to a desire to have sex with other men), while I usually feel like “bros” with men. This causes me to see the world through a different lens than my straight peers, to exist in the world in a slightly different way. As God has redeemed and transformed me, he’s tapped into those gay parts of me that now overflow into compassion for marginalized people and empathy for social outcasts—he’s used my gay way of being for His glory rather than making me straight.
Here’s an example of the kind of pushback Julie has received: Owen Strachan, an assistant professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College, has argued that this way of speaking
is deeply problematic. It is flawed at the core. Our sins do not enrich our perspective on life; our sins twist God’s good gifts and obscure the purposes of our bodies and our world. Sin never improves your outlook on the world. It always distorts it. Please hear me: there is nothing redemptive about sin. Grace, on the other hand, is the very substance of redemption. But sin has nothing to do with goodness. As far as the east is from the west, so far is sin from any positive moral component.
You can read the rest of his argument here, which can be summarized in three points: “1. The Bible never speaks of positive components of our sins… 2. Homosexuality in Scripture is not neutral. It is evil… 3. Homosexual orientation, therefore, does not yield an enhanced Christian spirituality.”
I’m still trying to understand for myself exactly where the disagreement lies, so this post isn’t going to be my last word on the subject. For now, I just want to try out a thought experiment. I want to suggest that these sharply differing views—Julie’s and Owen Strachan’s—are, in part, the result of different understandings of what “homosexuality” fundamentally is.
As I pointed out a few weeks ago, depending on which historical era you lived in, you thought about same-sex desire and same-sex sexual expression differently. If you were a Christian in the medieval era, for instance, you probably thought of same-sex sexual behavior as an instance of lust giving birth to passionate transgression. What was in your sights wasn’t “gay culture” or “being gay” but acting wrongly or desiring wrongly (i.e., being tempted, nurturing lustful imaginations, etc.). You thought about sex between persons of the same sex as a vice that could potentially befall anyone, and you knew that Christianity condemned it categorically, no matter who committed it or what extenuating circumstances there might have been.
Now fast forward a thousand years or so. If you are a Christian in the modern West, you’re now swimming in a culture—including a Christian culture—that doesn’t share that way of thinking about sexuality. Here’s how Steve Holmes has recently summarized where we find ourselves now:
[I]f we truly understand the cultural situation in which we find ourselves, we have to accept that being gay/lesbian is a matter of human identity, not a matter of performing (or desiring) certain erotic activities. Thomas Aquinas could properly treat (male) homosexual activity as one amongst many species of lust, because culturally, that was how he and his readers experienced it; we experience our sexual desires as identities—gay, lesbian, or straight [footnote: Or indeed bi, trans, queer, or asexual…]—and so as something far more profound and basic to our sense of self than merely another experience of desire, whether disordered or not.
Given that gulf between those radically differing ways of thinking about “homosexuality,” I think it may make sense to view the differences between Julie Rodgers (and others of us here at SF) and Owen Strachan as differences between multiple models/definitions of homosexuality. It seems to me that Strachan is viewing homosexuality much more like a pre-modern Christian might: to be homosexually oriented is to experience discrete moments of temptation, forbidden desire, and (perhaps) to perform certain actions or behavior. When Strachan says that “we cannot glean any positive aspects of our patterns of sinful desires,” it’s clear that he’s treating homosexuality as a particular pattern of illicit attraction. Which is very similar to how almost all Christians would have thought about homosexuality until very recently.
But we live in a constantly changing world, and many modern Westerners—especially, but not only, younger people—recognize that “being gay” today is a cultural identity. It’s a community designation (“gay community”); it names a way of being in the world (“gay culture”); it involves a continuous narrative (“when I came out… my gay friends…”); and it can exist even before or without lust and behavior (think of how many teenagers you know came out before their first kiss). It isn’t identical to “lust” or even “desire.”
I want to suggest—and I do so tentatively, as a sort of thought experiment—that when people like Julie (and I) say that their “being gay” can be the time or the place where they experience redemptive grace, they’re speaking very much within a contemporary framework of thinking about homosexuality. They’re recognizing that not all aspects of this new social construct—“being gay”—are reducible to what the Bible names as lust or what pre-modern Christians (and modern ones) recognized as sin. There’s a whole raft of experiences and social connections and relational histories and aesthetic sensibilities that go under the rubric of “being gay” for many of us moderns. And when we suggest that our coming to Christ doesn’t simply erase all that but instead purifies and elevates parts of it, we’re not suggesting that the inclination to have gay sex somehow gets sanctified. Rather, what we’re trying to articulate is that much of who we were as gay is somehow made Christian, somehow made the occasion of Christlike love and service: my connections with my gay friends, my discovery of deep friendship in a specific gay community, my awakened artistic sensibilities that I discovered through my involvement in gay culture (etc. etc. etc.)—those things aren’t simply discarded or displaced when I get baptized. Like the grass and the air in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, they’re somehow made better and more real and more tilted toward self-giving love.
As I say, I want to think more about all this, and I’d really welcome your comments. For now, I’m posting this more as a provocation and a suggestion than anything else. Do you think this is a useful way to understand this particular disagreement?
UPDATE 12/17/14: Just to be sure you don’t miss it, I’m re-posting here a comment that Alan Jacobs, professor of literature at the Baylor University Honors College, left on my post earlier today. I think it’s very insightful, and Alan has definitely understood what I was trying to say:
I like this line of thought very much, Wes. And I’m going to bring Auden into this, ’cause that’s what I do. When Auden said that he was thankful for being gay — though he believed it sinful to act on his sexual desires — one of the reasons that he usually gave was that it “saved him from being a pillar of the Establishment.” That is, he understood that being heterosexual is also, and to some degree always has been, a social construct, one that, while it certainly involves sexual (biological) desires, also involves a way of performing the self in public, of being a particular kind of public person. (I take this as a Steve Holmes point *avant la lettre*.) It is, among other things, among *many* other things, a means of gaining and maintaining social acceptance, which is of course why so many gay people have married over the centuries: for “cover,” and because getting married is just the thing to do. So if being gay presented Auden with some temptations, it also insulated him from others.
And why shouldn’t we think this way? It strikes me as a thoroughly and properly Christian thing to ask, “In the midst of this trouble or temptation or confusion or affliction or weakness, what blessing does God have for me?” And if, as you suggest, we think of our sexuality not simply as a set of biological urges but as a complex interweaving of the biological, psychological, moral, and social, then it becomes easier to discern this seeking for the hidden blessing as a necessary thing, not as an evasion of moral responsibility.
Now, Owen Strachan would want to say that to seek this hidden blessing is wholly different than to be thankful for sin — and he does not distinguish between people who experience homosexual desire and people who “practice homosexuality,” nor, I suppose, between people who want to get drunk and drunkards. I think he’s interpreting Paul in an extravagantly eisegetic way there, and conflating things that Paul did not conflate, but let’s set that aside for now. (The relationship between the desire to drink and drunkenness is not, I would argue, exactly like the relationship between wanting to have sex with someone and having sex with that someone. But that’s too complicated to get into here.) Right now, I just want to tell a story about my father, who was a drunkard.
My father’s drinking made him abusive to me and my sister; it also landed him in jail. It was a terrible thing. *But*: my father was also a deeply proud, arrogant man who never did wrong in his own eyes. I suspect that these two things are related: that the burdens of pride and arrogance played a role in tempting my father to drink. But whether that’s right or not, in the end it was his drunkenness, and the collapse of his whole life due to drunkenness, that finally and violently shook my father out of his self-satisfaction. For the first sixty years of his life he did little good to anyone; for the last twenty, which he spent devoted to serving people in Alcoholics Anonymous, he did a great deal of good to many people. My sister and I, who had known him primarily in his arrogance and anger, stood stunned at his funeral, greeting person after person who told us that our father had changed their lives.
It was drunkenness that broke my father, and therefore drunkenness that opened the door to his transformation. Now, he had to overcome it, to get past it, but in the long run, what would he have done without it? As I look at his life — his *whole* life, not just a particular moment in it, I don’t know how *not* to be thankful for his drunkenness. Perhaps God could have used some other and less destructive a way to bring my dad around; but I don’t traffic in counterfactuals. Drunkenness was the means God did in fact use.
And isn’t this a Christian — especially an Augustinian — concept? *O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem*. We have to be very careful here, because we have been warned by the Apostle against sinning the more, that grace may abound. But being careful does not mean rejecting the *felix culpa* idea altogether. Perhaps the correct note is struck by Milton’s Adam, in *Paradise Lost*:
> full of doubt I stand,
> Whether I should repent me now of sin
> By me done and occasioned, or rejoice
> Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,
> To God more glory, more good will to Men
> From God, and over wrath grace shall abound.
“Full of doubt I stand” — thus Adam confronted with a vast and impenetrable mystery. Maybe *this* is part of what is meant by that strange phrase “the mystery of lawlessness”: the role sin and temptation play in the economy of salvation. This is not something about which we can make simply definitive pronouncements. God works in all sorts of mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.
These thoughts lead me to dissent from those who say that if you call yourself a gay Christian you “foreclose the possibility of transformation.” First of all, the statement is just illogical: if I call myself an American Christian I do not thereby forclose the possibility of emigration. But more important — and I’m sure Wes or Ron or Eve or someone on this blog has said this before — this way of thinking dramatically circumscribes what *counts* as transformation. In this way of thinking, transformation is made to equal having your sexual desires directed towards people with certain genitalia, and this strikes me as woefully unimaginative at best. As Mark Y. commented the other day, when Paul stopped praying for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, he wasn’t giving up on the possibility of being transformed. We don’t get to dictate in advance to God *how* he shall transform us, and a person whose sexual desires continue to be directed towards people of their own sex but who directs his or her energies into building communities of spiritual friendship has surely been transformed in deeper ways than the person whose biological desires are merely redirected.