Yesterday, Wesley Hill started a helpful discussion about the way that different people use words like “gay” to mean different things. One reply, given by Denny Burk, is a common one I’ve heard many times before. The basic idea is that talking about a “gay” (or, in my case, “bisexual”) orientation is by definition referring to something sexual, and desires for things like friendship are desires I share with straight people and shouldn’t be lumped together in the same category.
The practical problem I have with this way of thinking is that I can’t always separate my feelings neatly into these two categories of desire. They often seem to arise from the same phenomenon. I think this experience is something I share with many others, and why we talk about how our orientation is “not reducible” to lust or a desire to have sex. This manner of speaking seems kind of fuzzy, but I think this is so precisely because the underlying phenomenon is hard to categorize.
In order to partially get across what I’m talking about with my “orientation,” why that is “not reducible” to wanting to have sex, and why I can’t separate everything out as nicely as people (including myself!) might like, I think it would be most helpful to talk about my experience. Of course, I can’t speak universally for everyone, and others may have different experiences.
I think it’s correct to point out that if there is no sexual component to a person’s desire for the same sex, words like “gay” and “bisexual” are misleading. Part of the reason that I do readily use words like “bisexual” is that I find relating sexually to attractive men to be tempting, while most men seem to find the idea repulsive. And when I’m strongly attracted to a particular guy, lust is something I am prone to. In these respects, I differ from straight men. (On the other hand, I differ from gay men in similar ways when it comes to women, hence my use of “bisexual.”)
Even when I am attracted to a guy in a way that includes sexual temptation, there’s a lot more going on than wanting to have sex. It typically starts in a way that is physical but not genital: I notice that the guy is nice to look at. I can find myself desiring him. I don’t actually mean that I desire to do particular sexual things with him, but simply that I desire him in a relatively vague sense. If I have a natural opportunity to befriend him, there’s an energy that my feelings bring. In fact, much of this is true even in many cases that don’t lead to lustful thoughts, and whether I experience sexual temptation has more to do with the intensity of the feeling than the kind. It’s not clear to me where precisely my experience starts to differ from a straight man’s.
Some of the ways I differ from many straight men have become much clearer based on certain conversations I’ve had, though. For example, I remember talking with some staffers of a college ministry whose men’s conference I was about to take part in. They were complaining about how hard it was to get guys to come to the event, since many college men just saw college ministry as an opportunity to meet women.
This thought was fundamentally alien to me. I was, if anything, more excited for the male connection than I would have about connecting with women. This was true even though I had no intention whatsoever of trying to find a romantic relationship or a sexual hook-up. My motivation wasn’t sexual per se, but it was quite analogous to the way meeting women motivated a lot of straight guys. I realized this had always been a pattern: before returning to college every fall semester, a disproportionate amount of my excitement and anticipation revolved around getting to know the new guys on the floor and reconnecting with the returning ones. In and of itself, I wouldn’t associate this with my sexual orientation, but in the larger context in which it was occurring, I don’t think it was totally unrelated.
Another example came when I was was talking to a straight male friend about the experience of listening to good music. He talked about how it often made him think of his girlfriend, and before had always made him think of some woman he was particularly attracted to. I realized that it had always been similar for me, except that it was more frequently another guy. I didn’t usually have explicit sexual thoughts in such moments, but I don’t think he did either, and my attraction to men was operating in a quite similar manner to his attraction to women.
It seems to me that, speaking phenomenologically and mechanistically, much of my attraction to men springs from the same parts of my constitution as a straight man’s attraction to women does. Too many of the details are the same, and in ways that are not just about wanting to have sex, to pretend they are unrelated. More importantly, I don’t know how to clinically separate something that has “sexual potential” or a “sexual component” from everything else, beyond simply responding to immediate lust and sexual temptation as such and using basic wisdom to avoid compromising situations. This leaves important practical, biblical, and theological questions about how to think, talk about, and respond to this basic reality. Ron has been working on a post that should help address some of these questions, but in the meantime I hope my reflections have provided at least some modicum of increased clarity and food for thought.
Jeremy Erickson is a software engineer in Wisconsin. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
I appreciate a lot that you say here about how people experience the world differently, and how this often lines up with sexual orientation. But I’m concerned that there might be a bad argument lurking here:
1. If the good aspects of my attraction to men were unrelated to homosexuality/bisexuality, then it would be possible to separate out the sexual attraction from the non-sexual attraction.
2. It is not possible to separate out the sexual attraction from the non-sexual attraction.
3. Therefore, the good aspects of my attraction to men are related to homosexuality/bisexuality.
Is there any reason to believe premise #1? Consider the parallel argument:
1. If the good aspects of my cleanliness were unrelated to my obsessive compulsive disorder, then it would be possible to separate out the non-obsessive cleanliness from the obsessive cleanliness.
2. It is not possible to separate out the non-obsessive cleanliness from the obsessive cleanliness.
3. Therefore, the good aspects of my cleanliness are related to my obsessive compulsive disorder.
Obviously, in this latter argument premise #1 is just false. Human experience often cannot distinguish the source of an action — whether from a vice or a virtue — but it does not follow that a single action (cleanliness) can only come from one source. Likewise, even if it’s impossible for me to tell whether my attraction to Benedict Cumberbatch does or does not proceed from my sexuality, that does not mean that there’s no fact of the matter, and it does not mean that I should just assume all my healthy experiences toward men are qualitatively different from the experiences of straight people.
This doesn’t mean the conclusion you draw is false. But it does mean that — if I got your argument right, and that’s a big if — your argument includes a false premise.
I guess I was more trying to offer some preliminary reflections, more than to make an argument. My comments about separability had a lot to do with the basic advice that I just need to repudiate and repent of my sexual orientation. It’s not clear what I’m being asked to repent of. If it’s things like having lustful thoughts, that makes sense, but some people seem to be arguing for something deeper than that, and I think they’re at least being less clear than they realize, beyond the question of whether “repenting” of the involuntary parts of my sexuality even makes any sense. I also was trying to say that including other parts of my experience within the semantic range of “bisexual” was a reasonable thing to do (and in line with common practice), even if similar experiences could also happen in other people for other reasons.
An argument that would be closer to what I actually said would be the following:
1.) The phenomenon of sexual orientation causes certain effects in straight people that are often heavily weighed towards the opposite sex (e.g. who they are tempted to lust after, who they would want to meet at an event, who they think of when listening to a good piece of music, etc.)
2.) In my case, several of these categories are not so heavily tilted towards the opposite sex, or are tilted towards the same sex.
3.) It’s likely that there is common psychological causation for some of this.
4.) Thus, sexual and nonsexual aspects of my experience are likely linked by common cause to some degree.
This is fundamentally an inductive argument. If I were the only person who ever noticed any of these patterns, it would be likely to be happenstance. However, these patterns actually seem fairly consistent among the people I’ve talked about them with. That makes the conclusion at least reasonable, even if not totally conclusive.
I should also be clear that I’m not saying everything positive about how I feel towards men is totally different from what straight men experience. As I said directly in the post, I’m not sure where exactly my experience starts to differ, and I imagine the answer to that question varies a lot between different straight guys. It’s even possible that some of my experiences could be qualitatively identical to a straight guy’s, but mine happens to flow from some psychological mechanism that is related to my sexuality whereas his happens for some other reason. There’s a lot we just don’t know about the psychological causation, so I certainly wouldn’t want to make a definitive statement.
I don’t see anything wrong with its being an inductive argument. In fact, I would be more suspicious of your assertions if it weren’t.
Also, I think it’s worth noting that the definition of sexual orientation may be different in cultures that have less rigid scripts for masculinity (e.g., southern Europe). Heck, gender roles were much less restrictive even in the ’80s in the US than they are today. I always sensed that I was a bit different from many other guys, but I didn’t begin to identify that difference as my being gay until the late 1990s. By that time, gender roles began to be defined much more narrowly and enforced with much more rigor.
For example, when I was growing up in the ’80s, the majority of teenaged guys hung out at the country club pool in Speedos. We routinely even played tennis and hit golf balls at the driving range in nothing but a Speedo and sneakers. No one thought anything about it. Then, Pat Buchanan came along with his Culture War, and ruined everything. Of course, a quick scan of my high school yearbook from 1989 reveals an obesity rate of roughly about 1-2%. So, expanding waistlines may also have had something to do with the disappearance of Speedos. Anyway…
I’m having difficulty with this idea that sin is only sin if it’s volitional. I find myself being envious sometimes. That is a sinful part of my interior life that I repent of even though those particular impulses are not volitional. I pray that God changes my heart and makes me less envious. If I believed gay sex were a sin, then the impulses that lead to gay sex (attraction included) are also necessarily sinful.
I think I understand why this notion that homosexual orientation is morally neutral is gaining traction. If attractions are sinful, then gay people are inherently contemptable (in the same way that an envious or greedy person is contemptable). Traditionalists don’t want to view their gay family and friends (or selves) in that way. That’s understandable and perhaps even commendable. Never the less, it’s an accomodation belief that’s not aligned with the general protestant view of sin. The conversation would be less contentious if we fess up to the fact of this accommodation.
I’m short on time at the moment, but I’m going to offer a relatively quick reply now, and might have time to say more later.
My view of sexual attraction is colored by the fact that I’m bisexual. The fact of the matter is that there are many women I’m attracted to but can’t morally have sex with. The gender of the person is but one of several possible reasons I can’t morally have sex with someone. There may be a point about my attractions towards single women being ordered towards a possible marriage, but I quite often find myself sexually attracted to a woman who is already married to someone else, for example.
In talking to a lot of straight men, many of whom are decades older than me, about their sexual attraction, I’ve learned that this phenomenon of broad sexual attraction basically never goes away with marriage. If anything, the situation is in some ways worse for a married man, for whom attractions to all but one particular woman are temptations to the sin of adultery.
I’m only aware of two cases which commonly result in changes in heterosexual attraction:
1.) Aging. People’s sexual attractions tend to diminish as they get older. But this happens for non-Christians, too, even if they’re not pursuing anything resembling Christian sexual morality. It also correlates with measurable hormone levels, and is pretty certain to be a physical consequence of biology. So it’s not really “sanctification” per se.
2.) When attractions are fed, typically through pornography, they become more pronounced. The obvious analogy on the gay side is gay porn, which has similar effects. The phenomenon of attraction happens anyway, though, even when not fed this way.
Sexual attraction to people we can’t morally have sex with is basically a fact of life for almost everyone. If being attracted to people of the same sex makes one morally contemptible, than being attracted to other people’s spouses (or to anyone other than one’s own spouse for the already-married) makes one equally contemptible. In other words, under this assumption, pretty much everyone is just as contemptible. There are a lot of people, including a lot of traditionalist Christians, who don’t get this, but they’re simply being inconsistent.
As I indicated in my post, I’m also not convinced that the attractions I would describe as “gay” are inherently ordered toward sexual sin, since they can also be directed towards things like deeper friendship. In fact, I think my same-sex attractions are usually in a significant sense LESS problematic than many of my opposite-sex attractions, since they’re unlikely to be reciprocated in a way that could escalate into sexual sin.
I’m also not convinced that viewing sexual attraction per se as a heart issue is warranted, and I think many of the arguments used to do so contradict things the New Testament teaches about Jesus’s experience, but that’s a point that I need more time to get into adequately.
Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m sincerely glad for you that you’ve found some degree of congruence between your faith and your sexuality. I still find your perspectives illogical. You fail to address the idea that, in the traditionalist perspective, there is a way for heterosexual impulses to be sanctified – there is a telological purpose that leads to God-honoring relationships; whereas the impulses that lead to intimate relationship formation of gay couples can never be God honoring. That is a fundamental difference. These impulses, therefore, are not morally equivalent.
As a Christian man who’s married to a man, I have to agree with your critics here. You seem to want to have your cake and eat it too. Either gay is bad or it’s not. It can’t be both.
Please trust that I push back in good faith. This is an important conversation with a profound impact to the gay kid in the front pew. This logical inconsistency is the crux of the modern conversation about the sanctity of gay relationships. If homosexual orientation is morally bad (like envy or greed) then there must be a way for ones interior person to be changed as a new creation. If homosexual orientation is morally neutral, like heterosexual orientation, then there necessarily must be a way for our sexual impulses to be sanctified.
You seem to be saying that sexual impulses are neither morally bad nor sanctifiable. That perspective seems to lack an intellectual and theological integrity. “Gay sex is sinful but homosexual orientation isn’t” is a pastoral accommodation. I’m not sure that denying that fact is really helpful.
Thanks for your response as well. I agree with the importance of this conversation for people’s lives, regardless of the ways I disagree with you.
I actually believe it’s illogical to hold that heterosexual orientation *as it exists today* is morally neutral, while homosexual orientation is morally bad. I’ve tried to think through how that could work, and every way I have tried either requires a highly questionable premise or leads to a direct error in logic. I haven’t been able to find a way to reason to it that doesn’t result in a dead end.
To show why this is the case, I’ll use an example from my life with the names changed. Sexual orientation is not just some abstract phenomenon; it’s a pattern of real attraction towards specific individuals. Bob is married to Mallory, Alice is a single woman hoping to get married to a man, and Charlie is a single man hoping to get married to a man. I find myself attracted to all of these people, in a way that includes sexual temptation.
What I think your argument is getting at is that, under the traditional view, my sexual attraction to Alice in a way that is not morally bad, because me getting married to Alice is a God-honoring outcome I could pursue. That’s not the interesting case for my analysis. The interesting case is my attraction to Mallory, who is already married to Bob.
If you try to argue that my attraction to Mallory is morally neutral under the traditional view, you’re confusing the notions of “necessary” and “sufficient.” Under the traditional view, the other person being of the opposite sex is a necessary condition for a moral sexual relationship. However, it is absolutely not a sufficient condition. If I were to have sex with Mallory, that’s adultery, and it’s very much a sin under the traditional view. Thus, under the traditional view my attraction to Mallory is not different from my attraction to Charlie. Both are problematic, simply for different reasons. My impulses towards sex with Mallory are *not* sanctifiable. And yet these sorts of impulses are a near-universal aspect of heterosexual orientation.
The argument you might be trying to make is that my orientation is justified under the traditional view because it includes attraction to Alice. But I can’t see how my attraction to Alice is relevant to my attraction to Mallory or, for that matter, Charlie. If we argue that my attraction to Alice can justify my attraction to Mallory, than it can also justify my attraction to Charlie, even if it is sinful for you to be attracted to Charlie because you’re not attracted to Alice. This is at best highly counter-intuitive.
If you can articulate a specific way around this problem that I’m not seeing, and that isn’t riddled with its own logical errors, I may well modify my position. I can definitely miss areas of reasoning, although it seems unlikely to me that I am doing so here.
The conclusion I’ve found inevitable is that sexuality as it exists today is fallen and broken, and this brokenness affects nearly everyone to some degree. There are two logically consistent options for people with the traditional view to hold.
1.) Gay sex and homosexual orientation are both sinful. Heterosexual orientation as it actually exists is also sinful because it includes an orientation towards adultery.
2.) Gay sex and adultery are sinful, but the orientations towards either constitute “temptation” in the same sense that Christ experienced temptation and are therefore not in and of themselves sinful.
For what it’s worth, from what I’ve read of Denny Burk’s position, he is consistent and takes position (1). I tend to lean towards position (2) for Christological reasons.
The basic issue I have is that Jesus is described in Hebrews 4:15 as being “tempted in every way, just as we are.” Given how much press sexual temptation gets in the New Testament, I think it guts this passage of its meaning to argue that Jesus never felt any sort of sexual attraction that constituted a “temptation” towards sin, and thus was towards someone he couldn’t morally have sex with. This thought of mine seems to be confirmed by the fact that the first recorded temptation of Jesus directly involved his biological drive of hunger, and the account of the garden of Gethsemane shows an inherent tension between Jesus’s biological reactions of distress, up to the point of sweating blood, and his recognition of his Father’s will that he be crucified. I also take modern scientific knowledge about sexual attraction as a data point to consider when interpreting Scripture, and when combined with the orthodox doctrine that Jesus was fully human and the above reflections on Scripture, I find point (2) more convincing based on what I’ve seen. As a Protestant, though, I am willing to modify my view if I can be shown otherwise through Scripture. I just won’t take the inconsistent view that my attractions towards married women are more sanctifiable than my attractions towards men.
The key point, though, is that under the traditional view attractions that point towards adultery and attractions that point towards gay sex stand or fall together. It simply isn’t consistent to see the entirety of heterosexual orientation as morally neutral while seeing homosexual orientation as morally bad. I think this inconsistency is one part of why we see so much of the pain you rightly point out. If people see others as having a moral problem that is worse than their own, they will treat the other people worse.
I say that parts of homosexual/bisexual orientation can be “good” only in the sense that Ron describes in “What is Gay?”:
“Even if a person’s sexual attractions are predominantly directed to the same sex, that does not mean that every attraction they feel to their same-sex friends is lustful. Insofar as it is lustful, it must be mortified. But insofar as it can be directed toward chaste friendship, it is sanctifiable.”
“Gay” is a complicated phenomenon that includes both parts I believe are good and parts I believe are bad.
I hope this at least clarifies where I’m coming from, and sorry for the length of this comment.
(1) I don’t understand how one could be “oriented” toward adultery, whereas I do understand how one could be oriented toward males. Thus, there is no comparison between your attraction to Mallory and your attraction to Charlie. A straight man is not “oriented toward adultery”, but rather attracted to women. And that attraction is an essential aspect of his vocation, since it prompts him to marry. This is why a gay Christian who — for the first time, say — experiences opposite sex attraction should be happy about it, since it might open up a new avenue for holiness (even if he chooses not to take it).
(2) “Opposite sex attraction” does not mean the “desire to have sex with a woman”. A man’s desire to have sex with random women, whether the women are married or single, is comparable to the desire to have sex with random men. It is objectively disordered, since its object is SEX not the PERSON.
(3) I don’t think your attraction to Mallory is, in the slightest, objectively disordered, if you desire HER. A comparison: is it good and healthy for me to desire to share a beer with a friend? Sure it is. But suppose one of my friends, Johnny, is an alcoholic. Surely it is STILL good and healthy for me to want to share a beer with a friend, but it is wrong for me to share a beer with Johnny. The DESIRE to share a beer with Johnny, mind you, is still good and healthy. But I shouldn’t do it.
Now, if I desired to share beers with ALCOHOLICS, in particular, that would be a problem. And if I experience sexual attraction to married women BECAUSE they’re married, that is a serious problem. But experiencing sexual attraction to women who just happen to be married isn’t disordered at all, though obviously it would be wrong to encourage such thoughts.
When I speak of “orientation,” I simply mean the pattern of a person’s attractions over time. When I talk of “orientation” towards adultery, I simply mean that a person experiences attractions that cannot be morally fulfilled. Reasoning about “orientation” just boils down to reasoning about attractions. I think abstracting away from particular attractions just obscures the point.
I actually see all attraction that cannot be morally fulfilled sexually as basically equivalent. I do see the desire to have sex with a particular person I can’t marry as something disordered, an aspect of myself that I should fight, and an occasion of humility. I just think that desire to have sex with Mallory is just as much so as desire to have sex with Charlie. My simple attraction, though, when not directed to sex is not necessarily “disordered.” I don’t think that if I desire Charlie as HIM, or Mallory as HER, that is really disordered at all. It’s wanting to have sex with either that is the problem. And desires that aren’t for sex can often drive chaste friendship, which is not disordered.
I also don’t think that finding a difference in my experience is actually contrary to being “one of the guys.” Guys are not all one monolithic group. For example, I’m also driven by a love for mathematics and computer science that not everyone shares. I’m a hopeless nerd in that way. But acknowledging this is simply acknowledging one thing that happens to be true of myself, just as acknowledging my orientation is. I don’t really see either as a big ontological difference, but simply a phenomenological aspect of my experience. I’ve also found just being “one of the guys” to be extremely helpful. I just think I can do that while still acknowledging my own unique attributes.
I also think that I can come across as though my differences are a bigger deal than they really are, simply because we’re interacting on a blog that discusses sexual orientation. It’s not like I’m constantly thinking about all my differences when I’m just spending time with people.
Editing error in my fourth paragraph: “sexual attraction to Alice in a way that is not morally bad” shouldn’t have the words “in a way that.”
Also, I think your argument, which I’ll call argument A, works the following way:
A.1.) If gay sex is a sin, then sexual attractions to the same sex are morally bad.
A.2.) If sexual attractions to the same sex are morally bad, then there must be a way for the interior person to be changed as a new creation.
A.3.) However, we find that people continue to be attracted to the same sex despite all attempts at spiritual growth and orientation change, so even repentant Christians do not experience this sort of interior transformation.
The logical conclusion of argument A is, “gay sex is not a sin.” I have my doubts about both A.1 and A.2. However, what is conclusive for me is reasoning about the following parallel argument:
B.1.) If adultery is a sin, then sexual attractions a married person feels to people other than his or her spouse are morally bad.
B.2.) If the sexual attractions a married person feels to people other than his or her spouse are morally bad, then there must be a way for the interior person to be changed as a new creation.
B.3.) However, we find that married people continue to be attracted to those other than their spouse, despite all attempts at spiritual growth, so even repentant Christians do not experience this sort of interior transformation.
The logical conclusion of argument B is “adultery is not a sin.” Premise B.1 stands or falls with premise A.1, and premise B.2 stands or falls with premise A.2. Premises A.3 and B.3 are similar, and while they do not logically have to stand or fall together, both seem to be conclusively true based on the overwhelming testimony of people’s experience. But the conclusion of argument B is false, so its reasoning must go wrong somewhere. I think this has to come from the falsehood of either B.1 or B.2, resulting in the falsehood of A.1 or A.2 and thus defeating the soundness of argument A. This is why I’m not able to find argument A convincing.
“My comments about separability had a lot to do with the basic advice that I just need to repudiate and repent of my sexual orientation. It’s not clear what I’m being asked to repent of. If it’s things like having lustful thoughts, that makes sense, but some people seem to be arguing for something deeper than that, and I think they’re at least being less clear than they realize, beyond the question of whether ‘repenting’ of the involuntary parts of my sexuality even makes any sense.”
I agree with Ford about at least some of his response to this line of thinking. Here’s what I would say. If you continually find yourself having thoughts of stealing or raping then — even if you don’t approve of or encourage these thoughts — you ought to respond to these thoughts with a certain profound level of humility. You ought to assume that “there’s something wrong with you”, because people won’t think thoughts like this in heaven.
You also, of course, have to resist the urge to steal or rape. But this voluntary component is just the tip of the iceberg. Do the involuntary thoughts need to be *repented* of? I don’t know if “repent” is a helpful term. They need to be rejected, and they need to be the occasion of humility (or “shame”, as in “I am a man of unclean lips”, in Isaiah). To say that homosexuality isn’t like stealing or rape, in *this* respect, is to say that same-sex sexuality is a “special” sin, and that the ordinary rules don’t apply to it. And we know we shouldn’t say that. (I would *like* to say that, of course, but I would *like* to say all my sins are deserving of special treatment.)
As for the question of affective experience, you seem to be assuming that there is an ontological reality about you — gayness, call it — that causes both your particular type of fondness for male affection and your sexual attraction to men. But the same data could easily be explained by the hypothesis that most modern straight men aren’t “in touch” with their need for male intimacy. And this latter explanation would better explain the historical fact that straight men, throughout history prior to 1950 or so, HAVE been preoccupied by male friendships, and that such friendships often involved close physical and emotional sharing.
A friend of mine has said that gay or bisexual men experience tremendous blessing by feeling like they are “one of the guys”. This has been my experience, in my personal life. I am suspicious of any interpretation of the world that tends to draw sharp phenomenological distinctions between gay men and straight men.
It strikes me that one of the problems with this discussion is that it’s moved inadvertently back to Burk’s definition of sexual orientation, i.e., a definition that defines sexual orientation in terms of allegedly isolated sexual desires.
Burk’s definition errs in two basic ways. First, it errs in failing to account for the interrelatedness of aesthetic, romantic, emotional, interpersonal, and erotic attractions. So, any definition os sexual orientation has to account for the fact that all of these attractions can affect and influence each other. Second, it errs in failing to account for the importance of the social environment into which those attractions are forced to work themselves out.
In defining myself as an LGBTQ person, I basically mean that I’m wired in a way such that my aesthetic, romantic, emotional, interpersonal, and/or erotic attractions are directed in ways that lie outside of the contours of what my cultural context defines as masculine. A non-LGBTQ guy is someone who is wired in such a way that his aesthetic, romantic, emotional, interpersonal, and/or erotic attractions are directed in ways that lie within the contours of what my cultural context defines as masculine.
To the extent that there’s any telos involved, it lies within the socially constructed definition of masculinity. In the last 50-100 years, we have taken Freud’s lead and redefined marriage as a sex-centered institution, and have concomitantly adjusted the definitions of normative masculinity and femininity accordingly. But there’s no reason this has to be so. After all, the church was quite satisfied with Paul’s view of marriage for 1900 years, until we Oedipalized the institution.
As an example, I work for a European company, and spend some portion of my time in France (and some other places too). In the US, I generally identify as gay or queer, as my attractions do not fit within the narrowly scripted view of masculinity that is normative in the US (and particularly within the church). In France, I identify as straight because I feel like I fit fine within the broader French definition of masculinity. I can easily envision myself marrying a French woman. I couldn’t ever envision an American woman, especially one who’s been inculturated in any way by evangelical Christianity.
You are talking about sexual attraction which is different than sexual desire. Would you say your attraction towards men extends to every aspect of how you relate to people of both sexes? I would think so. And I would say this happens to gay (bisexual) or straight people. It happens to me and I’m straight.
According to Catholicism the attraction of a man towards man (or a woman towards a woman) is disordered. In my mind it is disordered just as being born with an attraction towards alcohol. If you are attracted to alcohol it will also extend to all the aspects of your life. Not as much as sexual attraction.
My attraction to men affects the type of cereal I like and the type of music I enjoy and the way I goof off with my daughter? Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding.
To say that an attraction is disordered is simply to say that the object of the attraction is not a proper object for that kind of attraction. It doesn’t make the person disordered, nor does it “affect all aspects” of the person.
Maleness and femaleness — now THAT affects us, through and through. Sexual attraction doesn’t.
I think I said affects human relationships? Didn’t I? I never talked about cereal…
I agree with Rosa here. I’m not Catholic, but I like how the RCC expresses this reality that sexuality affects how we relate to the world:
“2332: Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.”
I think one of the reasons why closeted gay people commonly experience detachment and isolation is because, by suppressing their sexuality, they are unable to relate to the world in a meaningful way.
The meaning of “sexuality” in that quotation is maleness or femaleness. Otherwise, the quote would be saying that sexual orientation affects the way I relate to my niece — which is crazy talk. But my being MALE does affect the way I relate to my niece.
Yes Jeremy I think you might have hit the nail!
Interesting discussion here. What is the difference between sexual attraction and sexual desire? In much of the literature I’ve read, these terms are used interchangeably.
Yes, many times they are used interchangeably. But I do make a difference.
To me sexual attraction is what happens to my five year old daughter when she tells me she has a “crush” on a little boy. That’s pure sexual attraction. I don’t think she has sexual desired yet! Which would be sexual attraction plus the desired for sex.
There’s probably very little difference between *sexual* attraction and sexual desire but orientation includes attractions that are not yet sexual (aesthetic preferences and emotional attachments). Gay certainly includes all sorts of sensibilities and cultural associations that aren’t sexual – so, from a Christian perspective, is a less problematic ‘identity’ than homosexual or same-sex attracted.
There are important differences between sexual attraction and sexual desire. As I say, my five year old daughter feels attraction towards the opposite sex. This is sexual attraction and she herself knows it is different from and any other attraction she might feel (for the same sex for instance – friendship, camadarerie etc). I think you will agree with me that she doesn’t feel sexual desire (I would hope so! She is five!) which is the desired for sex (libido).
I don’t see any difference between sexual attraction and desire. I don’t find that a helpful split to introduce into the conversation. This is not a distinction that is normally made in this conversation. And I have been in this conversation a long time. So I am not sure where this is coming from.
PS: That is not to say I don’t see Rosamin’s point, but I don’t think it’s helpful for the particular conversation on homosexuality. We are not talking about children. We are talking about adult sexual attractions.
I’m not sure I really get what you are saying about ‘sexual attraction’ before puberty. Do you mean that being attracted to a someone of the opposite sex is sexual attraction? If so, can we even speak of sexual attraction between two people of the same sex?
You say that you dont find it helpful to distinguish between attraction and desire… And you add that you don’t know where this distinction is coming from. Well… Maybe it is because English is not my first language and so this enables me to see a clear distinction between the two terms. And also find it useful.
Attraction means “to be drawn to”
Desire means “to want to”
Sexual orientation place a big role in the direction that sexual attraction takes. You might be “drawn to” the opposite sex or to the same sex. Sexual attraction is also involuntary.
On the other hand sexual desire involves the will. You want to have sex with either a person of the same sex or of the opposite sex.
To me it works as follows, first there is an unconscious attraction to someone then, if you are no careful, this attraction developes into a want, a desire for the other person specifically s physical, sexual desire.
As to children… I belive that if you what to understand how we go from pure joy to lust it is helpful to track how feelings develope from childhood on. When you are a child there is no lust. So how do children express and live their sexuality is a question worth exploring. My daughter is drawn to boys in the purest way ( no sexual desire involved). She feels what I call “raw attraction”. Now the question is… Is there a (moral) difference between a child’s feeling attraction towards the same sex and a child’s felling a difference towards the opposite sex?
Yes! This is the important distinction! I totally didn’t get what you were saying before, but your perspective as a non-native English speaker is helpful here.
English — unlike most other languages — does not distinguish between passive and active desire. This is a HUGE problem, when people start to talk about “repenting” for desires. We should repent of active desires, but we cannot repent of passive desires — what you are calling “attraction”.
Please look to ni answer to Karen…
I’m glad you get it! 😃
To me people exhibit sexual attraction from a very early age. This is nothing that they need to repent from.
And I also think that there is a range of emotions/feelings from sexual attraction leading to sexual desire. It is a whole continuum of un-willed feelings to actual willed thoughts and actions. Everyone knows in their hearts where they need to draw the line. To put up boundaries is sometimes a challenge because it is a continuum range and not a discrete set of feelings.
Rosamim, I recognize the distinction you are trying to make but I don’t think it is accurate to refer to the childhood attractions as “sexual.” “Sexual” attractions has the connotation of desires that come to fruition at puberty. There is a change in the body at puberty that creates sexual desires distinct from pre-puberty. This is not to say children can’t experience sexual stimulation (young children often explore their genitals and masturbate). But it is a different experience post-puberty.
What you are describing as the childhood draw is merely “attraction” not *sexual* attraction. At most you could refer to it as romantic attraction, but not sexual attraction.
So, I still disagree that your distinction is helpful–at least with the terms you are seeking to use. I think your distinction would be more clear by referring to them in the categories of:
1. Romantic attraction (crushes, feeling in love, but not sexual in nature).
2. Sexual attraction (related to puberty and biological responses of arousal and natural desire to have sex).
3. Lust– sexual desires in which the will has become entangled. It has moved beyond sexual attraction/desire to fantasizing, fixating, etc.
Karen you certainly can des agree with me! But I still hold that my daughter is attracted to boys in a sexual way that she is not attracted to girls. In fact because of this early attraction I know she already is heterosexual. She is drawn to boys so therefore she is attracted in a sexual way. Your point of view basically means that sexuality starts at puberty but this is not so. We are born with sexuality engrained in us. We express our sexuality differently in every stage of life. It is part of us from the time we come into being. Therefore I hold that little children experience sexual attraction that developes into sexual desire durin puberty. As I said you are free to disagree…
Btw your description is “romantic attraction” how is it not sexual in nature? If I am romantically involved with a man, doesn’t that say something about my sexuality?
I wonder if you two might be using a different definition of “sexual.” Perhaps Rosa is saying “related to sex (as in male or female)” and Karen is saying “related to sex (as in intercourse)?”
Not sure if this is what is going on, but if you are defining your words differently, you’re going to end up talking past each other.
Yes Jeremy! I think you might be right! Thanks
This is spot on for me! Thank you for helping me explaining this…and thanks in advance for your forgiveness of my thievery. 😉
I certainly admit that you never talked about cereal. :p
Well said, Jeremy.
I would agree with you. Sexual attractions can’t be neatly cabined off from our aesthetic, romantic, and interpersonal attractions. Even so, that doesn’t mean that sexual attractions are somehow more central than the others in terms of thinking about sexual orientation. I think the APA’s revised definition of sexual orientation reflects that.
For example, I don’t feel any primary sexual attraction to anyone. But my aesthetic attractions are primarily directed to men, while my romantic attractions are slightly directed to women. My sexual attractions, when they occur, often do so in response to having one or more of these other attractions piqued.
In some ways, that’s why I probably prefer “queer” as opposed to “gay” or “bisexual.” Then again, if we were all more honest with ourselves, we’d all have to admit that we’re more complex than the normative masculine and feminine gender roles allow us to be.
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I think the term orientation is not a clear term when speaking of experiencing homosexual or gay feelings. Orientation implies that something is in proper alignment.
A man’s body is clearly oriented towards the female. He is aligned in her direction, pointing towards her, able to penetrate her and join sexually. If his feelings don’t align in this direction, mind and body are out of synch. This would more properly be disoriented.
We should find some other term to describe the experience of having a set of sexual feelings.
Strong affection or a type of attraction for another man is not at all out of order. It’s when it leads towards romance or Eros that it begins to take the wrong direction.
Those college boys do certainly feel strong desire to bond with each other. Don’t think they only want to be with girls. Look at the fraternities and all their male-bonding shenanigans. This time in their lives is very much about male camaraderie, but yes, they are also becoming men, sexuallymature, and naturally want to find intimacy with a woman.
If this doesn’t naturally happen it would seem there is some kind of arrested development.
Anything that you may call “gay” that’s not romantic or erotic is not really gay. It’s friendship.
re: “repent of my sexual orientation…”
An orientation — or as I would call it a disorientation — is not something repent of. It is not sinful to be disoriented. You just need to take care to not let it lead you into a such degree of affection that it becomes erotic. You may feel like going there, just don’t nurse the feelings. A desire to go there is not sin. Only going there is. Yes, there must be volition for it to be sin.
The heterosexual orientation is necessarily good. That fact that one can commit adultery or any variety of sexual sin in no way negates the inherent goodness of heterosexuality. It is ordered towards the creation of new life, therefore it is necessarily good.
The homosexual (dis)orientation is not good. It is not neutral. Instead, it is bad. This does not in any way mean that one who experiences it is bad or commits any sin. But it is a bad condition because it is a fruitless expression of sexuality.
… or would lead to a fruitless expression of sexuality if taken to its end.
No, a heterosexual orientation as it exists today cannot be said to be “good” in an unqualified sense. Even the fruit of a sexual relationship that bears children can be quite bad, if not in the proper context. In over a million cases in a year in the United States alone, a new life is brought to a very premature end by elective abortion. There are also a lot of children that grow up without their fathers present. While these cases obviously involve other sins, sexual sin typically plays a very major role. The sexual behavior isn’t necessarily good just because it created a baby, and neither are the attractions that sparked the behavior.
From a traditional Christian perspective, even without these consequences, premarital sex, the use of pornography, and adultery are all serious sins. Both the Old and New Testaments (see Proverbs and 1 Corinthians for examples off the top of my head) talk extensively about the need to be wary of sexual temptation in a heterosexual context and the seriousness of heterosexual sin. Heterosexual attractions are at the beginning of many sexual sins, and heterosexual attraction as it exists today doesn’t generally distinguish between ordered and disordered expressions. As I said in a previous comment, opposite-sex pairing is merely a *necessary* condition for a moral sexual relationship from a traditional Christian perspective, and is not a *sufficient* condition.
Unless I’m mistaken, there’s a fallacy here — though it’s a fallacy Kant is famous for, so you’re in good company. The fallacy is based on the inference from “X could lead to bad results” to “X is not intrinsically good.” It’s a bad inference. Kant said that the virtues were not intrinsically good, because virtues (courage, e.g.) could result in more evil in the world. Hitler was, after all, courageous.
But all sorts of intrinsically good things lead to bad results. It’s obvious that joy is intrinsically good, but one of the most joyous moments of my life so dazzled me that I ended up in a serious car crash. The correct point to make would be something related to the fallacy, but not fallacious: that no intrinsically good thing *by itself* causes evil. It was not Hitler’s courage that got him into trouble, but his jealousy and his ruthlessness.
So sure, heterosexual desire can lead to bad results. But I’m not sure that it’s the DESIRE that leads to these results. I think it’s other things: lust, squalor, lack of self-control, and so on. If my daughter ended up pregnant at age 16, I can never imagine telling her that the problem was her desire for a man. Surely the pregnancy would be indicative of problems, but desire would not be one of these problems.
In the last paragraph, replace
“So sure, heterosexual desire can lead to bad results. But I’m not sure that it’s the DESIRE that leads to these results.”
“So sure, heterosexual desire can be part of a causal sequence that ends in bad results. But I’m not so sure that the DESIRE is a major causal reason for these results.”
(The way I first wrote it is a plain contradiction. Eeek!)
The main reason I see heterosexual desire as not good *in an unqualified sense* is that much of heterosexual desire *is* a desire for behavior that is clearly defined as sinful in Scripture.
It seems this is probably related to observable bad consequences. When someone desires to do something sinful, then they do that thing, then they compound it with further sin, the results do involve their initial sin and desire for it.
A sexual act is not good or sanctified *simply* because it is heterosexual, so I don’t see why a desire for that sexual act should be considered good or sanctified simply because it is heterosexual. There are other factors that must come into account.
“The main reason I see heterosexual desire as not good *in an unqualified sense* is that much of heterosexual desire *is* a desire for behavior that is clearly defined as sinful in Scripture.”
Only when you INDEX it — that is, relativize it to other facts about the actors themselves (are they married? etc.). The desire itself has to be evaluated on three rubrics:
(1) Is its object intrinsically good? This would rule out oral or anal sex, for straight or gay couples. But coitus would be intrinsically good, on this metric.
(2) Are the intentions of the actors morally good? This would rule out exploitative sex, or sex merely for pleasure.
(3) Are these particular actors in the right sort of relationship to realize the intrinsic goodness of the action? This would rule out fornication and adultery, since fornication and adultery involve relationships that negate the goods of the sexual act.
The point I’m making is NOT that all heterosexual desire is good, since heterosexual desire can be aimed at things like oral or anal sex. Rather, the point I’m making is that the desire of male for female, or female for male, is the only sort of *sexual* desire that satisfies #1. This means that this desire is far more pure and good than any other sort of sexual desire.
I spent years resisting that conclusion, since it seemed to make me (and other gay/bi people) look inferior, in some way. But nothing involuntary can make a person morally inferior, so I was afraid of — nothing, as it turns out. God didn’t give some people the intrinsically good desire for victory, and he didn’t give others the intrinsically good desire for conjugal sex. Unless I say that my brother (who isn’t very competitive) is lacking in dignity, I shouldn’t say that gay people are lacking in dignity.
It seems at this point we may be coming from different philosophical starting points. It’s not clear to me why criterion (1) is any more important the other two criteria, and how you define the “object.” More concretely, why are the specific identities of the body parts relevant, but the specific identities of the people involved less relevant? It seems to me you’re abstracting away important details in your definition of “object,” and I don’t see what justifies this abstraction.
It seems especially beyond any premises I currently grant to claim that the sexual desire a man may feel for another man’s wife is “far” more pure and good than a desire he may have for his male partner, simply because of which of the criteria it violates. I have trouble applying the words “pure” or “good” to either.
In case it’s not already known, I’m one of the Protestant bloggers here. So if you’re arguing based on details of the Catholic tradition, that could be why we’re not necessarily starting from the same premises.
I didn’t say the first criterion was more important than the second two. But if the first criterion isn’t satisfied, you don’t even move on to the next two criteria.
A comparison: is it more unnatural to desire to eat laundry detergent, or to desire to eat someone else’s bread? Surely the first one, even though the second one might be — in many cases — more morally objectionable. It is perhaps a worse sin to commit adultery than to engage in gay sex; but the desire of a man for a married woman is only disordered *in context*. It is not disordered full stop. The desire to eat bread is good and natural; it is only the later step (the relational qualities of the bread) that make it wrong.
And no, I don’t see any specifically Catholic premises in my argument.
Why do the criteria need to be checked in that order? I don’t actually see any logical problem that results from trying to go through them in a different order.
I guess I don’t see why disordered “in context” vs. disordered “full stop” is a relevant distinction. In other words, what’s the point of distinguishing two different desires for sin in this manner?
I also find it interesting that, in Scripture, desires are typically analyzed with regards to their relational properties. For example, the commandment against coveting talks about “your neighbor’s” things, and the type of sexual lust Jesus addressed was heterosexual. It seems you’re at least looking at things from a different framework than I usually see in Scripture. The only place coming to mind that might be analyzing things the way you are is Romans 1, but I’m unconvinced Paul would have categorized fornication or adultery as “natural.”
Then again, perhaps I don’t actually disagree with the point you’re making, and simply don’t see the significance.
I may be wrong here, but to me, the significance only has to do with one thing: my spiritual journey to the Lord. My desire to defend my perversion as somehow good or holy or neutral has become a spiritual impediment to me — and I don’t think I’m the only one this has happened to. The second step is to say, “My perversion is bad, but everyone else’s perversion is just as bad.”
Now, if that’s TRUE, then it’s not a problem. But I don’t think it’s my place to insist that it’s true. Much wiser people have worked on this than I, and they seem to think that my perversion isn’t “just the same” as a man’s desire for a woman. I don’t really have arguments against them, and their arguments seem pretty solid sometimes. Do they sometimes speak defensively, or are they sometimes cruel? Yes. But I can’t let that cloud my judgment of the truth.
I’ve found that I need to privilege male/female desire in my mind because I naturally — desperately — want to privilege male/male desire. I want to tell myself that my desire for men is profound, and educated, and rarified, and ethereal. In comparison, my desire for women sometimes seems carnal, beastly, and conventional.
These sorts of thoughts are the action of Satan, attempting to pull the wool over my eyes. The most important thing I do every day is speak the truth to Satan. I cannot do that as long as I cherish the idea that “I am not a worse pervert” than another person. To paraphrase Paul, “Jesus came to save perverts, of whom I am the worst.” This has been a reliable mantra in my life.
Well, for me, I’m not even comparing myself to someone else as much as comparing two aspects of my own desire. I do find it interesting that we happen to have quite different practical responses to how we think about this stuff. I’ve found that when it comes to explicitly sexual lust, I’m more turned on by the heterosexual side of things. To my shame, I’ve let “at least it’s not gay” rationalize way too many lustful thoughts. So I worry that straight people could fall into the same trap, except for them it would include a self-righteousness about it since they aren’t actually tempted by gay stuff.
I actually haven’t found compelling the arguments I’ve seen for finding illicit heterosexual desires to be better than illicit homosexual desires. As Bobby pointed to, I still think there may be a Catholic/Protestant divide in how we frame things with natural law and such, since I believe the Fall to be a fairly comprehensive thing. That might cause us to view the same arguments differently.
I reiterate, a heterosexual orientation is absolutely good. One can certainly abuse a well-ordered sexuality and cause grievous destruction. To procreate and abort is a crime against humanity (forgive them Father, for they know not what they do). “Heterosexuals” commit sins even while the form of their sexual act (sexual intercourse) is properly ordered. If they commit sodomy (not all sodomy is between same sex partners) they too are acting against nature.
I would say that (hetero)sexuality can deviate in many ways, homosexuality being but one. What of the man with a peculiar fetish, such as exhibitionism? The actor from 7th Heaven claims to have tendencies towards this. Others claim he is a pedophile. He denies that. Whatever the case may be, theree seems to be disoriented sexuality with this presumably “heterosexual” man.
Let’s suppose that we set homosexual temptations and activity aside for the moment. I don’t think anyone would read through the past 2,000 years of Christian theology and say that the consensus is that “men’s sexual desire for women is absolutely good.” So I think your claim that “heterosexual orientation is absolutely good” is a very strange claim to make.
I’m not sure where this’ll show up on the comments thread, but…
Re: my comment “Jesus came to save perverts, of whom I am the worst”, I want to clarify that I mean by “pervert” simply “a person who desires the wrong things.” It’s the theological meaning I’m after, not the (very disturbing) cultural meaning.
I’m sorry Ron you are wrong. It is heterosexual attraction that God intended for our bodies and marriage he intended as the right and legitimate expression of heterosexual attraction.
Ron, I don’t really know about 2000 years of history but what I do know is that heterosexual attraction is the intend of God for our bodies. And his intent is always absolutely good.
Marriage is what God intended for our bodies. “Heterosexual attraction” leads to fornication and adultery as well as to marriage.
I’m sorry Ron you are wrong. It is heterosexual attraction that he intended for our bodies and marriage he intended as the right and legitimate expression of heterosexual attraction.
This is a rather absurd statement that flies against nearly 2000 years of Christian teaching on sexuality. There is absolutely no way to square your averment with I Corinthians 7, and pretty much the rest of the Pauline corpus.
Perhaps it’s time for you to take your concern trolling elsewhere.
I agree with you Daniel. Heterosexual desire is blessed by God as it is part of his intent for the human body. Thus heterosexual desired is good. We can pervert this good but in its origen it remains good. It is like being born with two hands: it is good. What we then do with our hands can be evil.
I should have said heterosexual attraction instead of heterosexual desired.
Please point to the passage in Scripture that distinguishes between heterosexual attraction and heterosexual desire.
I reiterate my claim that heterosexual desire is indeed an absolute good!
Said Adam upon seeing Eve: this is at last bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh… They were both naked and felt no shame.
Man desiring woman is the ultimate good! If he abuse the weaker sex, what great evil!
The purer, the more beautiful something is, the greater is the abuse or perversion of it.
Sexuality is so good. Through it we are co-creators with The Creator. For this reason in the fallen world it is the most abused thing. But we have a merciful God. Lord have mercy. We are made of clay.
Oh this indeed is good!
I will, with charity, presume that you are getting carried away rhetorically and not stating your seriously thought out beliefs here. “Man desiring woman” is not the ultimate good. The ultimate good is union with God. Even setting that aside, Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 7:38 that “So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.”
I agree with you that marriage is good. But heterosexual desire can lead to marriage or it can lead to sins which will separate you from God. Something that can lead you to eternal separation from God is not an absolute good. And nothing but God Himself is the ultimate good.
Yes , saying “the” ultimate good is hyperbole. I’m back on Earth. Let me change that to just very, very good!
My less enthusiastic point is that the heterosexual orientation is how sexuality was designed to be. It is ordered for good. However, one can misuse it.
The homosexual set of attractions is a distortion of (hetero)sexuality. It is disordered to bad erotic ends, even if along the way Ther may be aspects of genuine friendship.
That’s all I was really trying to say.
But you’re wrong to exalt “heterosexuality.” What the tradition exalts is marriage. “Heterosexuality” is the cause of most sexual sin. This is not harmless imprecision: it reflects a deep confusion about how the Christian tradition has thought about sex and marriage. See Peter Ould’s Some thoughts on the Debate – 2 – The Glorification of Heterosexuality.
Thanks, Ron. Ould makes a great point. And I think therein lies my discomfort with the “biblical manhood and womanhood” model of marriage that’s proposed by Strachan and Burk: It tries unsuccessfully (in my view) to uphold traditional marriage on a basis of fairly untraditional assumptions.
It may do us well to return to the former naivete when there were just men and women. It seems that our challenge lies in trying to recover some second naivete from the ashes of the mess that we’ve inherited from the romantics and the Freudians.
As Ron said, not “the ultimate good.” A central good, but not the ultimate good.
Definetly not the ultimate good!
All our poetry, all our art, speaks to this. There is no beauty without Eros, properly ordered, of course. Perverted it is vile. But even then a glimmer of its beauty may be perceived.
But Eros properly ordered is ordered to Marriage, not “heterosexual desire.” The overwhelming majority of sexual sins in human history were expressions of “heterosexual desire.” You are trying to claim that a whole category is “absolutely good” because it contains some truly good members.
There is great beauty with love of any kind, Eros and all others. But Eros is the subject of so much art…. Yet pornograhy too. There is a reason.
Hi Jeremy –
You’ve given me much to think about and I’ve spent some time this weekend pondering your responses. I’d like to share those thoughts. Please forgive the length of this comment in advance (and as always…thanks for the grace regarding typos:)
In your argumentation, you’ve attempted to eliminate the categorical difference between homosexual attraction and heterosexual attraction. In your example, you try to draw a parallell between adultery and gay sex. In the traditionalist framework, the attractions leading to these sins are not morally equivalent. Attraction to another man’s wife is a temptation of the flesh – an immoral expression of God’s gift of sexuality. Attraction to a man, however, is a pathology and a perversion of God’s gift of sexuality – if you’re protestant it’s an unnatural lust; if you’re Catholic it’s an intrinsic disordering from which flows grave depravity.
You’re view is a revisionist one that fully considers our relatively new understanding sexual orientation. I don’t disagree with you; I don’t personally believe that same sex attractions are sinful.
But It makes me wonder why this pastoral accommodation is acceptable to you, and wonder if other pastoral accommodations would also be acceptable in your view. You posit that gay attractions aren’t necessarily bad because not everyone (if anyone) can change their orientation and attractions are involuntary. Others say gay relationships may not be God’s ideal, but gay covenantal partnership isn’t necessarily bad because it might be the most moral life available to those for whom celibacy isn’t sustainable. I personally agree with William Stacy Johnson that the accommodation view is a way forward for traditionalists.
You wrongfully presume my intention for engaging in this particular conversation in this particular forum. I’m not necessarily arguing for the affirmation of the sanctity of gay relationships. I’m trying to understand the thoughts and motivations behind this revisionist view you’ve articulated.
It seems like, for celibate gay Christians, this view that homosexual orientaion isn’t sinful serves two primary functions: 1) it diminishes or eliminates internal shame and 2) if you’re argument succeeds, it reduces the amount of rejection experienced from the in-group you desire to be a part of.
Regarding reducing shame: I think this is good. It mitigates the inherent harm of the traditional teaching; it makes the Church marginally safer for the gay kid in the front pew. These recent SF posts are, in fact, an expression of gay pride. You’re saying “We’re here. We’re queer. Get over it.” And, not unlike the larger LGBT community, you’re fighting for full participation in your chosen society. I can totally relate.
Regarding reducing rejection: The group from whom you seek acceptance still wants to stigmatize people who are gay by insisting that gay relationships and the people in them are both inferior and immoral and should not be accepted in the Church (and/or society). Those thoughts are echoed in this comment thread.
This puts the writers here at Spiritual Friendship on ethical thin ice. It seems like the raison d’etre of the site was to explore how to make more space for singles so that celibacy is sustainable. That seems noble to me (so long as celibacy is freely chosen and not emotionally coerced). But lately, it seems like the mission has shifted to popularlizing the traditionalist belief outside of the gay celibate community. By doing so, you’re putting yourselves in the position of spokespeople for compulsary celibacy. I was entirely unsurprised last week when Owen Strachan, even in his critique of this group, held up two of it’s memebers as an example of “the good gays”.
So I think it’s worth significant time pondering how, in your quest to gain acceptance and reduce shame for gay people in the Church, you avoid being used as props to justify the rejection and shaming of gay people in the Church and in the world.
I wish you peace and blessings and a very happy Christmas.
Thanks for your reply as well. If I complained about length or typos, I would be committing the sin of hypocrisy, so no worries!
I guess I’ll try to step back and describe how I think about things. I think you’re reasonably on target in some ways, and less so in others. I’m a pretty typical evangelical, in that I see Scripture as the ultimate authority under which everything else must be brought. So I’m OK with “revisionism” precisely when I think it gets closer to what Scripture says, or identifies ways we’ve just taken Scripture to say more than it actually does. But I do want to be careful, since I know I most certainly have the capacity to be wrong. Tradition is often valuable in offering a corrective, and there’s a lot of wisdom we ought not discard. But if I see a contradiction between Scripture and tradition, Scripture trumps.
I don’t think that I am motivated only by pastoral concerns, because I do believe that theological correctness is also important. Shame and rejection can play the role of causing me to believe that there’s something wrong with the status quo, and then to subsequently examine the status quo in more detail to figure out what went wrong. However, I don’t think they should cause me to jump to conclusions about exactly where the problem lies.
In this case, I don’t see how viewing illicit heterosexual desire as better than illicit homosexual desire is compatible with how Scripture talks about sin, particularly when it comes to desire. After all, the example of “envy” you gave is identified as a sin in large part due to the tenth commandment. In that commandment, the problem was not the objects of desire, but rather precisely the same sorts of context that make certain heterosexual desires problematic (the fact we’re talking about our neighbor’s things). I don’t see how an “immoral” and a “perverted” use of the gift of sexuality are different in any relevant manner, and I don’t think Paul would have defended adultery as a “lesser evil” than homosexuality in any manner that would make its desire more acceptable. But I think we’re running in circles if we keep debating this point. It seems you find this distinction meaningful in some sense that I don’t, which is leading us to different conclusions.
The question of accommodation would be another essay in and of itself, and one I don’t think I’m particularly qualified to write. I don’t see what I am arguing here as a form of “accommodation,” because it’s just what I’ve found theologically convincing thus far, and my views could change given new evidence.
Your claims about the “traditionalist framework” are honestly a big “” for me. From what I’ve seen, tradition has not spoken with one voice about heterosexual desire and has often been quite negative even about instances I would see as properly ordered. And your claim about the implications of the “traditionalist view” is different from much of what I heard in the evangelical church I grew up in or the evangelical college I attended, where as presumed heterosexuals we were taught to view our own sexual sins with utmost seriousness. There was indeed the practical difference that it was assumed we could pursue marriage as a reasonable outlet, but that wasn’t something that made arbitrary desire good. So I think what I’m arguing is within the normal range of “traditionalist.”
I don’t know that I would consider arguing for my beliefs to be totally separate from what I’m trying to do here. I don’t think shame is an ultimately effective way to get people to approach what I see as right living, though, and I think it’s important for people to own their beliefs themselves. I don’t want people to believe something just because I do. I’m particularly frustrated if someone points to me (the bi guy) as a way of saying the traditional view of sexual ethics isn’t that hard to live by, and I do try to correct it if that happens. So I think some of the concerns you raise are quite valid.
Sorry for another long comment myself, and I hope you have a wonderful Christmas as well!
I wasn’t going to comment further, but I have to call out an important discrepancy in your response.
The traditional theology, as clearly articulated by theologians like Gagnon, attempts to pathologize people who are gay. In the Protestant stream, these assertions are grounded in Romans 1. In the Catholic stream, these assertions are grounded in a natural law argument. Regardless, they both lead to the same place: gay people are not normal – we are sick and twisted. That’s why so-called sexual sin in gay relationships has been colored differently than “normal”, post-fall, non-perverted temptations like being attracted to another man’s wife.
The pastoral implications of this distinction are huge. Gay attractions have traditionally been viewed as symptoms of a sickness of the soul that can be cured by receiving Christ and becoming a new creation. This is often expressed as being freed from the bondage of homosexuality, or struggling against same sex attraction (which, by the grace of God, can be sanctified and the gay person can be made normal). THAT is the orthodox traditionalist view.
That’s why, as I was coming of age, Exodus had such a strong presence. I remained closeted and celibate, so I never entered the ex-gay world. But the promise was hope of becoming a “normal” human.
The Catholics, meanwhile, have a support group called Courage that, to this day “treats same sex attractions” with a twelve step program.
By removing the pathological characteristic of homosexual orientation, you’ve changed the doctrine in a meaningful way. And by doing so, you’ve made compulsory celibacy the new reparative therapy.
Ultimately, I believe if people believe homosexual orientation is morally neutral and unchangable, they will understand the cruelty and harm inherent in the traditional doctrine because they understand that relationship formation leads to human flourishing. Six clobber passages don’t make the human experience different for people who are queer.
Peace and blessings.
Yes, the traditional view says that same-sex desire is (theologically) pathological. It does not, however, say that such desire is psychologically pathological or that such desire can be changed through therapy — both of which were central claims of Exodus. These latter two theories owe more to traditional psychotherapy than to the Bible or Church tradition.
The traditional view entails that the believer’s *attitude* toward same-sex sexual desire must be negative. Such desire must be thoroughly rejected. But it need not be addressed by therapy, no more than one must get therapy to treat one’s envy habit.
Also, in an earlier comment, you said that traditionalists make gay people out to be “inferior”. That’s not true, either — or rather, it’s only true in the sense that ANY fault makes a person morally inferior. If you say that traditionalists think being gay makes a person inferior, then you would have to say that being prone to jealousy makes a person inferior, or being prone to anger makes a person inferior. None of these things affect a person’s *dignity* and value.
Just wanted to clarify these two points.
Sorry it has taken a few days to get back to you. I’ve been busy with Christmas things, and I hope you also had a good holiday.
I think we’re actually defining “traditionalist” differently. From what I understand, thinking about “sexual orientation” per se was not part of typical Christian discourse until it became a regular part of popular discourse in the last couple centuries. And the distinctions you’re pointing to between gay and straight people, and related ideas about “healing,” didn’t really show up until the mid-20th century. (If I’m wrong about this and you have sources, do correct me.)
When I talk about “traditional” views, I’m usually talking about the way things have been understood over the history of the Church universal. While the views you point to have indeed been far too common in recent decades, I think they’re ultimately inconsistent with what people claim to believe. Even Gagnon frequently uses the notion of a “polysexual” orientation, which he correctly asserts most men to have, to talk about how sexual desires can be perverted and not always healed. He just tries to go further to argue that a homosexual orientation is even worse.
I’m well aware of the ways people try to use Romans 1. I think we’re correct in following tradition to conclude that gay sex, and at least the willful lust that precedes it, are sinful. This much definitely dates back before the past couple centuries. (I know you disagree with this doctrine, but I’m explaining why it fits in the notion of “traditional.”) However, using it to argue that gay people are a worse category of human being is to ignore the immediate context, particularly the way Paul starts Romans 2 by talking about how his conservative religious readers are no better. Using the immediate context within Scripture to interpret a passage is a technique that has been uncontroversial for centuries, but I don’t see how it can be reconciled with the abuse of Romans 1 you point to.
So I agree that what we’re doing at SF goes against much of the doctrine that has been popular in many circles in the most recent decades, but I think we’re going back to earlier tradition and thinking through it better, rather than just trying to revise it because of something we don’t like. This isn’t what “revisionist” usually means.
I think it’s important to understand what we mean by “traditionalist” before we go decrying it as harmful. You actually seem to shift definitions within your most recent comment, arguing that any view that doesn’t allow gay relationships with a sexual component to have “inherent” harm. I would actually agree with you that the ex-gay-influenced approach of many conservative Christians causes harm. I just think the harm we see is from factors other than the condemnation of gay sex itself. (I got into this more at https://spiritualfriendship.org/2014/11/17/the-fruit-of-traditional-teaching/)
I disagree and I’ve been immersed in this conversation for a long time.
Traditional theology priviledges heterosexual marriage exclusively. It says all other sexual relationships (and by extension the people in them) are immoral and inferior. It is, as David Gushee called it recently, the teaching of contempt of gay people.
“Traditional theology priviledges heterosexual marriage exclusively. It says all other sexual relationships (and by extension the people in them) are immoral and inferior.”
But none of that entails that gay *people* are inferior, and none of that entails that they are deserving of contempt. Blind people are lacking in a good capacity, and envious people possess a bad capacity — but neither the blind nor the envious are inferior or deserving of contempt.
The traditional theology says that gay people are fundamentally flawed in a way that makes us unsuitable for romantic intimacy whereas straight people are suited to live fully into the human experience including being open to intimacy.
The traditional theology says our sexuality is perverted in a way that a straight persons isn’t.
It doesn’t call us different, it calls us “less than”.
A question: does traditional theology say that Paris Hilton is unsuited for rocket science, or that Stephen Hawking is unsuited for playing professional football? No, that has nothing to do with theology. Nor is there any theological restriction against gay people engaging in the gift of matrimony. The Catholic Church, at least, does NOT say that gay people are unsuited for romantic intimacy — it just says that the most life-giving sort of romance involves opposite sex lovers.
I see no reason to believe that gay people are, in general, incapable of intimacy and romance with the opposite sex. It might not “feel” right all the time, and it certainly isn’t something I would recommend for everyone. Then again, I wouldn’t recommend that a person tempted to vanity run for president — some weaknesses don’t “fit” well with certain vocations.
I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be having this conversation in such a charitable way, on both sides. (At least, I *hope* I’m being charitable. I know you are.) My entire point is that a traditional theology which does not denigrate gay people is *possible*; I’m not saying that our churches are good at this, in the current environment. I think members of the Church should treat gay people the same as they treat anybody with disordered desires — and we ALL have disordered desires — by being polite and generous, and leaving pastoral concerns to intimate friends and pastors. I *hate* that many Christians feel that shunning, or making rude comments, or otherwise abusing gay people is appropriate.
No ones telling a blind person that they’re morally forbidden from reading, or telling the left handed person they’re morally forbidden from eating.
“No ones telling a blind person that they’re morally forbidden from reading, or telling the left handed person they’re morally forbidden from eating.”
Perhaps a better analogy is a person incline to overdrinking… They can’t drink (alcoholic beverages) period. Or a person incline to gambling, they can’t gamble. There are conditions of our bodies that make us lean towards moral evils and this is true of everyone not just homosexuals.
And an alcoholic can’t drink at all, not because of the nature of drinking, but because of the *way* he drinks. The Church condemns practices, not people. The practice of oral/anal sex or mutual masturbation is not a life-giving practice — even though we do not deny that (like excessive drinking) it carries with it many good experiences, even bonding experiences (again, drinking can bond people).
This claim, which comes from the natural law tradition, is falsifiable. If there were a culture/subculture of people who practiced gay sex and yet demonstrated exceptional virtue and stability of relationships, I would reconsider whether the practice of gay sex is life-giving.
// “No ones telling a blind person… //
All people in the single state are forbidden to be sexually intimate, regardless of their sexual attractions. Gays are not singled out as some kind of inferior sub-human and all the rest have a holy status.
Your analogies are inapt. They suggest that gay people don’t have the capacity to love and be loved intimately. We do – just not with people of the opposite sex. In that comment, you diminish my humanity. I am fully human which includes the capacity and drive to form romantically intimate relationships. I believe I’m well suited to marriage (and I know my husband is), just not to marriage to a woman.
The better analogy is this: The traditionalist teaching is not unlike the Christian Scientist belief that denies the goodness of medical care. When a woman withholds essential care from her son, he experiences suffering or death that is both unnecessary and unjust. God gave us the blessing of medicine which the religious teaching calls immoral.
In the same way, the Catholic Church denies the sanctity of gay relationships. It insists that the suffering that arises from compulsory celibacy (hardship that is explicitly acknowledged in the catechism) is necessary for human flourishing. But, knowing that God gave us the capacity to live into fully human lives – which includes the potential blessing of covenental partnership – that suffering is both unnecessary and unjust.
Just like the Christian Science teaching is potentially devistating to that child, so too is the RCC teaching potentially devastating to the gay congregant – especially the fourteen-year-old kid in the front pew. And knowingly encouraging the suffering of a subset of humankind is, by most people’s standards, cruel and immoral.
Thanks to you too for engaging in the conversation.
Peace and blessings
(1) The Catechism does not say gay people are called to celibacy. It says they are called to chastity.
(2) If you convince me that gay sexuality leads to flourishing, I will agree with you that gay sexuality is morally licit. I am very familiar with same-sex sexuality as it was practiced in many different historical periods. None of the examples I’ve seen convince me that people in same-sex romantic relationships are happier or more fulfilled than their chaste counterparts. I *do* respect your opinion that they are, but I cannot weigh your opinion as stronger than this historical evidence, and the evidence of cases I’ve seen with my own eyes which tend toward the opposite conclusion.
(3) Some people are ugly or deformed, and some beautiful people – for no particular conceivable reason – never find anyone willing to covenant with them. Is God being cruel to these people? If so, then you should conclude that (a) God is bad or (b) God doesn’t exist. If God is NOT being cruel to these people, then why would God be cruel to gay people by forbidding them to have sex with each other?
(4) Gay people CAN make covenants with each other, and keep them, even on the traditional view. I have two covenants with other men, one of them implicit, the other explicit. These friendships are just as deep and intimate as my marriage, just in different ways.
(5) Back to the main point — it is obvious that a man’s life is made worse by being denied essential medical care, since medical care is a precondition for the things that make life worth living. It is not obvious (to me, at least) that marriage is essential for a life worth living — far from it. I don’t have a problem with two men (or two women) living together in covenant, though; I just fail to see how such a relationship will foster virtue and happiness through romance or sex. THAT’s what I need enlightenment about.
“This claim, which comes from the natural law tradition, is falsifiable. If there were a culture/subculture of people who practiced gay sex and yet demonstrated exceptional virtue and stability of relationships, I would reconsider whether the practice of gay sex is life-giving.”
Come spend some time with me in New York. You will see, just like in the straight world, gay relationships are potentially generative. We commit ourselves exclusively to one another for life. We contribute as a family to our communities. The unitive property of sex deepens the emotional intimacy And strengthens our relationships.
As I say often, ultimately the sanctity of gay relationships is revealed in the lives of gay people.
I didn’t see this comment until just now. I am interested in your suggestion, though at the moment I haven’t the time. I’m not sure if I would perceive your surroundings in the same way you do, but it’s an interesting suggestion. Suffice it to say that: if gay marriage genuinely leads to stable gay relationships, seriously reduced self-destructive behaviors among gay people, and increased virtue and compassion in the world, I will change my opinions. You see, my opinions are based upon the incarnational word of creation, not just upon the Bible.
You will forgive me for hoping, however, that the Bible and the created world are in agreement. I’ve staked my entire life on that gamble.
Gagnon’s views are not widely held within Protestant circles.
Those who hold to the more traditional approach typically do so because they believe that the Bible articulates fairly restrictive semi-patriarchal gender roles for each sex. In other words, they don’t simply believe that we were created male and female, but they also believe that we were created to conform to certain notions of masculinity and femininity. According to that view, the man must always take the dominant role in sex and the woman must always take a passive role. Same-sex sex is viewed as sinful because it inevitable involves either a man impermissibly taking on a passive role or a woman taking on a dominant role. Such Protestants would also have problems with opposite-sex sex where the woman took on a dominant role relative to her male partner.
Gagnon, in contrast, believes that the Resurrection ushered in a new eschatological age that put an end to patriarchal ordering. Therefore, he cannot rely on the more typical Protestant reason for opposing same-sex sex. Therefore, Gagnon proposes anatomical complementary (as opposed to gender-role complementarity) as the basis of his objection. This view has few adherents, however. Most Protestants who reject patriarchal ordering also reject prohibitions on same-sex sex.
Until the past 20-30 years, Protestants of all stripes generally took a rather dim view of all sexual desire, seeing it as something to be restrained rather than indulged. The notion of sexual attraction (as opposed to sexual desire) is a product of modern psychology, and is not squarely addressed in Scripture or the Christian tradition.
As a Protestant, I see the present discussion as tracking with Gagnon, but expanding the notion of complementarity beyond mere anatomy. But I suspect that there’s bound to be some disconnect here between Catholics and Protestants given that we accord no sacramental value to marriage, seeing it instead as more of a pragmatic institution. Calvin, after all, proclaimed that marriage had a similar spiritual value as the arts of haircutting and shoemaking.
The attraction/desire distinction is clearly present in Rabbinical teaching about the OT, and historical Christian teaching about the OT and NT. It is the difference between temptation and fantasy. It is the difference between “finding a woman good looking” and “lusting after her”. It is the difference between saying, “Wow, that’s a nice car Jim is driving” and envying Jim’s car.
Rabbis in the 3rd century BC were teaching this stuff. And the Desert Fathers CERTAINLY were.
Last words from me on this…
I would refer you to the Ould piece to which Ron provides a link above. I agree that people experienced something along the lines of sexual attraction before the romantics came along. But such attractions were not generally deemed to have a nexus to marriage in the way that they do today until the 19th Century. There are exceptions for sure. But, in the main, the views that we hold today regarding the nexus between sexual attraction and marriage, were foreign to Western Christendom.
Be that as it may, that is not such a significant point to Protestants. I don’t view rabbinic literature and the writings of the Desert fathers to be part of the canon, and would therefore give such writings no more weight than those of Karl Barth or Miroslav Volf.
Lastly, I still see your definition of sexual orientation as a bit narrow and dated. In my view, one’s sexual orientation is just as much a function of how one’s culture constructs notions of normative masculinity and normative femininity. It strikes me that you’re content to leave the current social constructions in place, so long as the gay script is given equal legal standing. For that reason, you tend to gloss over the role of social construction. I don’t begrudge you that. Even so, that’s not really the project that most of us here are concerned with: In the main, we’re probably much more interested in some form of deconstruction.
Have an enjoyable Christmas.
I hope you had a great Christmas. It’s my hope that, in the mystery of God in the manger, we can find the core of our faith that transcends our theological disagreements.
I read your essay previously. In it, you posit that it’s the wrong application of right doctrine that’s harmful. With due respect and charity, you’re demonstrably wrong. The traditionalist doctrine itself is inherently harmful.
The kid growing up in the affirming church simply won’t experience the religion induced distress that his non-affirming gay peer will. The traditionalist doctrine pathologizes people who are gay and engenders self-loathing and shame. The traditionalist faith community will require that kid to arrest his sexual development and suppress his sexuality or violate the acceptable community norms (and be subjected to the attendant stigma). Whereas the kid in the church that affirms the sanctity of gay relationships will have the guidance and support of family and faith community as he tries to understand positive, healthy expressions of his sexuality.
Added to this common-sense understanding is the work of social scientists such as Richard Sipe and John Dehlin regarding the damaging impact of the pursuit of life-long celibacy. And there’s also the work of LDS researchers that shows that suicide ideation is the norm in the gay mormon population.
To say that the teaching is not inherently harmful is to ignore the evidence of emotional coercion and psychological harm, and to deny the lived reality of those who have been harmed by it. You also dishonor your celibate breathern by minimizing the suffering that many/most traditionalist gay Christians endure in their pursuit of chastity.
The doctrine demands the stigmatization and marginalization of “the bad gays”. The “wrong application” that you describe is the naturally bitter fruit of flawed doctrine.
It’s not a question of “if” the teaching causes harm – that’s not disputable. It’s a question of the moral permissability of harmful teaching within the framework of religious belief (i.e., “is the harm suffered by gay people necessary for the flourishing of humanity?”). That’s the question traditionalists are loathe to engage with. That’s the question that has led Christian ethicist David Gushee, evangelical leader Steve Chalke and others to re-examine and change their theology.
And, at whatever point the mission of this site shifted from trying to create a space for sustainable celibacy to advocacy of compulsory celibacy, the authors have a moral question to contend with: are you now perpetuating the harm that you once tried to alleviate?
My sincere best to you
Hi Jeremy –
I’m not sure if this site accepts links from non-mods…but, FWIW, I wrote this a while back. It’s germane to the discussion about the harm inherent in traditionalist doctrine.
With due respect and charity, I need to pull an Inigo Montoya with regards to your use of the word “demonstrable.” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
My academic training involves the sciences fairly heavily. I’m also the type of person who, upon reading about a study in the media, often goes to read the original journal article to see how the actual methodology aligns with the claimed results. (The media, not surprisingly, often claims far more than the original authors ever would.) Science is fundamentally about a particular method for establishing facts. There are common errors that most people make until trained otherwise, and even established scientists can fall to them and are often caught in the peer review process. I’ve developed an eye for these mistakes, and you’re making a few yourself: confusing correlation and causation, failing to control for relevant variables, and applying the results of studies to a broader population than is justifiable from the sampling method used. My academic training even more heavily involved formal reasoning, typically in the form of mathematical proofs. You are making an error here, as well, calling things “inherent” in the traditional view even when they do not follow logically from the belief that gay sex is unconditionally sinful.
My claim is NOT that the harm isn’t real, or that affirming churches haven’t done better. My claim is that there are relevant variables you haven’t controlled for that affect the results. In one of your comments here, you mention the “pathologization” of people and the resulting shame. In the post you linked, you mention several others, such as the way that people end up cut off from even nonsexual intimate friendships with the same sex. In my post, I offered a few more. The fact of the matter is that the pastoral situation in non-affirming churches has so many problems, and problems which are uncommon in affirming churches, that it is premature at best to conclude that the belief in the sinfulness of gay sex is the root cause for the difference between the outcomes we see. Affirming the sanctity of gay relationships does seem to be a sufficient (in a logical sense) solution to much of the harm we see, but I don’t think it is a necessary (in a logical sense) solution. And given that I believe Scripture to be much more authoritative than experience on moral questions, and I’m not convinced by the scriptural arguments I’ve seen for the sanctity of gay relationships, I can’t go there without some pretty fundamental shifts. On the other hand, going against some of the other beliefs you call “traditional” is actually, I believe, more in line with both Scripture and the broad history of Christian tradition.
I do think that an important part of what we’re doing at Spiritual Friendship is to address precisely the sorts of issues that are leading to the harm you’re recognizing. The pain and suffering people go through is important to address, and it is wrong to simply ignore it. I think reconsidering our theology is important. But for those of us who have, at least for now, remained unconvinced by the arguments for the sanctity of gay relationships despite that reconsideration, the task is to address the other problems. This is the mission of creating a space for sustainable celibacy, which is still an extremely important part of our mission. I tend to agree with Matt Jones’s analysis in “The New Ex-gay” (https://spiritualfriendship.org/2014/08/19/the-new-ex-gay/) that insofar as conservatives try to use us to “solve” the “problem” of gay people (or if we do so ourselves), we’re perpetuating harm, but as long as we’re working to address how straight Christians fail to make celibacy livable, we’re doing good.
Just to be clear…
I completely agree with you on the inherent harm of what you describe as the “traditionalist” position. I think we simply disagree on how best to move away from that approach.
I would probably analogize the differences in our approaches to the differences between second-wave feminism (you) and third-wave feminism (me). I’m not interested in creating a parallel track that’s given equal legal and social standing. I’d rather just destroy the tracks and let the process of creative destruction run its course.
I’m scratching my head on this one. Are you suggesting that the religion-induced distress experienced by gay people has not caused harm? Are you suggesting that there isn’t suffering associated with the pursuit of celibacy? Are you saying that traditionalist doctrine doesn’t require the stigmatization of same sex relationships (and, by extension, the people who are open to them)? If so, then I accept your challenge of my use of “demonstrable”. I’m not sure, however, how you could possibly deny these realities.
Ifrom I’m understanding the tone of your comment correctly, it seems I’ve crossed some line…which was not my intent. I appreciate you considering my challenges and I appreciate the dialog.
Peace and blessings.
I want to apologize for my tone. I got too defensive about your claims that my argument was demonstrably wrong and beyond debate, and I got into rationalist debate mode too quickly. I appreciate the dialogue as well, and am sorry my comment was not very welcoming. That was really my fault.
I’ll try to clarify a bit what I mean. I do think there has definitely been harm done in the name of Christianity. Much of it has been done by Christians who hold to a traditional ethic and mean well, and I think it’s important that we address that. However, I don’t currently think this is *inherent* in believing that gay sex is sinful or that celibacy is a normal part of living a holy life as a gay Christian. Rather, I think it’s a result of ideas that go beyond Scripture and the arc of tradition, and of attitudes and actions that are sinful. So I’m in full agreement with you that changes need to be made, but not in agreement that this necessarily involves encouraging people to get into gay relationships.
In terms of suffering associated with the pursuit of celibacy, I do think it’s inevitably a difficult call in some ways. However, I think it’s drastically more difficult, given current social realities, than it needs to be. I don’t think we’ve done much to ensure that people have meaningful, committed, kinship-type relationships even without being married. I don’t see how this would logically require that those relationships be open to sexual activity, so I think there is a massive room for improvement. So while suicidal thoughts are a big problem, I’m not convinced it follows so much from the belief that gay sex is a sin as from the lack of meaningful alternatives, in combination with all the other problems of shaming and such. I’m not sure celibacy has to be harder than other difficult calls like what our brothers and sisters in countries with real persecution face if they want to be faithful Christian witnesses. For some who currently suffer, celibacy probably doesn’t even need to be nearly that hard.
In terms of stigmatizing same-sex relationships and the people in them, I do see a disconnect between how conservative Christians react to heterosexual couples living together unmarried (even in cases where there are children involved, and thus sexual activity is apparent) and how they react to gay couples. This is actually one of the first things I point out if I’m talking to a conservative Christian audience about how to approach their gay friends, to at least get them thinking. I’m actually not sure that “stigma” per se is the way we engage people I disagree with. I do believe that Christians I have some sort of accountability or pastoral care relationship with do need to be discouraged from taking part in what I believe to be sinful. I also don’t think that being honest about my beliefs in a public space is a bad thing to be doing. But people need to be engaged where they’re at and to form their own beliefs honestly.
My complaint about “demonstrable” was really about what I understood you to be saying, that a refusal to affirm gay relationships (even as a pastoral accommodation) inherently caused the sorts of extreme harm we’ve actually been seeing. This is the claim that, given the many other problems with conservative Christian approaches, goes beyond what is “demonstrable” from the evidence. I think there is some complexity here, as I’ve tried to get across. And I may have misunderstood what you were saying, if you were making a more modest claim.
Does that make things clearer? Again, I apologize for being pretty harsh in my last comment and getting too sarcastic at the opening. I’ll try to do better.
I do think it’s worth admitting that the common narratives for supporting traditionalist marriage seem to rely on a faulty naturalistic reasoning that improperly castigates gay people–even celibate gay people–as some breed of moral defects.
As I mentioned before, I left the PCA because my pastor (and other pastors in the presbytery) kept suggesting that I needed to repent of my “inherently unnatural” state. Tim Bayly, who is one of the go-to gurus on these issues among PCA pastors, put it this way: “Sex is a calling from God and is foundational to Christian discipleship, so the man who says he’s a celibate effeminate is a rebel against God.”
When the church declares that I’m a “rebel against God” because I’m wired in such a way that renders me incapable of fulfilling some ideal of “biblical manhood,” I’d say that such an approach is inherently harmful. After all, that approach suggests that my mere status as effeminate (or not masculine enough) renders me defective in a way that disqualifies me as worthy of God’s grace to us in Christ (or that the the litmus test of my effectual calling is that I’m no longer effeminate).
Oh, I agree that there are a great many problems in many traditionalist approaches. Your identification of many of them (as well as David’s) is quite apt. These problems are precisely why I don’t see the belief that gay sex is sinful to be the necessary cause of the problems I see. There are other likely causes in play.
I forget how I first encountered Tim Bayly, but he’s actually struck me as far more extreme than nearly any of the PCA people I’ve encountered in real life. I’m pretty sure I discovered his blog online at some point, and can’t recall hearing his name in either of the PCA churches where I’ve been a member. It’s sad to me that he is (or at least was) a “go-to guru” in part of the PCA. He’s always seemed so fringe to me.
Yep. I agree completely.
Tim’s following is definitely on the more conservative end of the denomination. The guys I struggled with weren’t followers of Tim; they were younger guys whose views were probably more akin to those of Owen Strachan. I had some baggage from a couple of bad church experiences that made me less patient.
Again, I’ve appreciated your working through these issues with such honesty and transparency. It’s been helpful.
David and Daniel,
I find your exchange wonderful! Thanks a lot!
Not all “traditionalist” teachings re: homosexuality are the same. Here again, people come to a term with multiple perspectives. As a catholic who has ssa feelings, I never felt the church’s teachings in this area to be harmful or stigmatizing. To the contrary, I felt them to be liberating as I always felt ssa to be a disturbance and very stress inducing. Well, that’s my lived experience. There are many others with this same experience. Perhaps we are a minority.
I do however concede that a teaching that condemns one for just having a homosexual thought or temptation would be very harmful. Were I to experience that from my religious communion I would feel harmed indeed.
Thankfully, my experience has been one of spiritual friendship with many Christians of both sexes and in all all states of life and with different so-called orientations.
I’m so happy for you Adam!
God bless you
Gracias, rosamim. Que Dios te bendiga tambien!
I do wonder whether some of the disagreement here relates to the differences in how Catholics and Protestants discuss these kinds of things.
In my experience, Catholics often seek to frame ethics in terms of a fairly idealist notion of natural law. So, there’s a tendency to identify certain things (in this case, heterosexual attraction) as having some kind of inherent goodness.
For the most part, Protestants reject this sort of idealist distinction between the natural and the unnatural. Instead, we tend to view everything as discolored by sin, such that nothing is an unqualified good. To the extent that we speak of natural law, it’s typically in a fairly realist sense (e.g., Thomas Reid).
Jeremy’s approach probably makes more sense within the context of Protestant ethics. I think you can get there via Catholic approaches to ethics, but it would look a bit different. And that seems to be where the impasse lies: Adam, Daniel, and Rosa seem to be quibbling over the fact that Jeremy isn’t making his argument the way a Catholic would make it. Well, Jeremy is not Catholic, so that makes sense. If the three of you are bothered by this, perhaps it would be more profitable for you (and less distracting to others) if you would simply bypass the posts authored by Protestants.
I have to say I agree with most of Daniel’s comments here. And I agree with Bobby’s last statement that some of the impasse is related to Reformed vs. Catholic theology–namely that the fall taints everything. But I also think there are some misunderstandings. For example, Jeremy writes to Daniel:
“I actually haven’t found compelling the arguments I’ve seen for finding illicit heterosexual desires to be better than illicit homosexual desires.”
But that is precisely *not* what Daniel is arguing (as I understand him). He is not saying illicit heterosexual desires are better than illicit homosexual desires. He is asserting that heterosexual desire has a rightful place in a way that homosexual desire does not. That is why we affirm heterosexual marriage, but not gay marriage. Otherwise, to follow your argument, Jeremy, to its logical conclusion, we would have to say heterosexual desire is so tainted that there is no place for it, and we should all live celibate lives gay or straight.
On another note, I think it would be helpful to question our traditions–both Reformed and Catholic, especially on sexuality. For example, do we really believe as many of the church fathers did that sexual desire in of itself is a problem, a result of the fall? Or do we recognize that some of their rationale for their beliefs was based on faulty exegesis (e.g. the biblical narrative does not describe Adam and Eve having sex until after the fall–never mind Gen. 1 where God blesses procreation; also a hyper-literal interpretation of “I was conceived in iniquity” etc).
If we are going to accept the view of many of the church fathers, then we have to accept the faulty exegesis that led to their beliefs. And we have to be logically consistent and do as they suggested–everyone gay or straight should strive for celibacy. It is better not to marry at all. And those who are married should do everything possible to avoid having sex with their spouse.
I find it deeply troubling that there are so many hang-ups around sexual desire. It seems like arguing the world is flat, a real disregard for science and basic biology. Puberty is not the result of the fall. It is normal human sexual development. That means there is nothing sinister or fallen about experiencing sexual desire and wanting to have sex. Orgasm is very pleasurable and so naturally we want it.
So, I disagree that the only legitimate sexual desire a person can feel is within the marriage setting. This is Burk’s argument and what I strongly disagree with as I think it is harmful teaching. He implies that puberty is a result of the fall and so to feel any sexual attractions whatsoever apart from to a spouse is illicit. This is not a view that is held even by most evangelicals.
I would like to see less theological abstracting and more recognition of basic human sexual development. Sometimes this conversation risks sounding like anti-intellectualism and the “scandal of the evangelical mind” (or simply the Christian mind). Scripture never says that having sexual attractions stemming from the effects of puberty is wrong. It does say lust–the intentional stirring up of desire for illicit sex–is a problem.
The fact that men desire to have sex with multiple people in a way most women do not, and the fact that women can have a kind of sexual fluidity that is not as common among men has nothing to do with a “fall.” It has everything to do with how our bodies are naturally wired and various hormonal factors. Woman’s more monogamous attractions are not because she is more virtuous but because there is a biological drive to keep her young in a safe and stable environment. Basic biological realities like testosterone naturally affect sexuality, and there is no demon making men have more testosterone, etc.
What Scripture is concerned about is sinning against another sexually. It is the failure to love one’s brother or sister properly and so as Paul says to “defraud” a brother. We objectify and exploit another when we undress them in our minds and fantasize about them sexually when they are not ours to have. We sin when we engage in sexual activity that is outside the bounds of God’s creative intent for marriage that includes procreation. But beyond that I fail to see any value in hyper-analyzing every little sexual desire that we have and attributing all kinds of judgments to it.
I think it would be much more helpful to this conversation to discuss sexual desire as a basic biological appetite–regardless of gay or straight desires–and that the important thing is how we manage that appetite. The body is to be in subjection to the Spirit. Our body may be aroused and desire many things, but we don’t concede to whatever our body wants. In the same way, our body might desire to eat cake all day, but we choose to subject the body and manage hunger appropriately.
Our body naturally desires pleasure. Even though the church fathers got some of their biblical interpretation and thus theology wrong, they were right on the money in terms of understanding the power of pleasure. Their primary concern with sexual desire is that pleasure is so desirable that it can cause us to act in sinful ways. The quest for pleasure can be destructive. It causes us to be utterly self-centered and seek personal self-fulfillment at the expense of others. Pleasure itself is not bad; asceticism can be its own sinful preoccupation. But, it is wise to understand the power of our appetites, wise to understand the power of pleasure, and seek to put our bodies in subjection to the Spirit.
I too have found this discussion to be helpful, and have enjoyed it.
I have fairly significant doubts, however, regarding the notion that sex is necessarily central to heterosexual marriage. That’s not to say that it doesn’t play some role. Even so, I’m largely in agreement with Jonathan Mills’ thesis in “Love, Covenant, and Meaning”: That is, that we have made too much of sexual attraction since the 19th Century, and have ended up disfiguring marriage to be something that departs fairly radically from the institution it has been throughout most of Western Christendom. So, I see no reason to accept the culture’s facile suggestion that sexual attraction is central to marital bliss. If a particular couple elects to define their own relationship in that way, so be it. But sexual attraction is not nearly as essential as the Hallmark cards would have us believe.
Truth be told, economic factors do a far better job of predicting marital success than romance and sexual compatibility. If every couple considering marriage read through Gary Becker’s “A Theory of Marriage” and analyzed their relationship within that rubric, I daresay we’d have much less divorce and much happier marriages. After all, Becker’s analysis requires us to see marriage as a much broader institution–perhaps, even, as an institution where “gay” people may have distinct advantages.
As a Protestant, this is an easier step to make. After all, if we’re true to our roots, we are bound to accept the Reformers’ rather pragmatic approach to marriage. As I noted above, Calvin viewed marriage as no different from any other practical human endeavor. In that sense, there’s no theological reason why Protestants can’t subject sex to the same kind of pragmatic, commodified analysis that one might use in assessing whether to rent or own, etc. (within limits). The reason we don’t do that lies mostly with our unholy (and unwitting) commitment to romanticism (and to certain Freudian reinterpretations of romanticism).
Some of this is probably applicable in a Catholic context, but it’s not as straightforward as it is in a Protestant context. After all, Catholics view marriage as a sacrament, and tend to attribute greater theological significance to sex. I’d suggest that Scripture compels us to find a third way that lies beyond the traditionalist approach and the affirming approach. For Protestants, Luther and Calvin have already laid the theological framework to get there; we just need to recover it from beneath a mess of pietist/romantic garbage. For Catholics, the task isn’t as straightforward.
If my recollection is correct, you tend to be an ardent proponent of Gagnon’s views. While I agree with some of what Gagnon has to say, his project fails, in my view, because of his willingness to come to theological peace with the romantic/pietist revisions to the institution of marriage (which Mills critiques). In my view, once one makes Gagnon’s concession with the romantic redefining of marriage, affirming same-sex marriage becomes almost inevitable. So, while I disagree with the ultimate conclusions of Brownson and Vines, I generally believe that they do an effective job of eviscerating Gagnon’s flimsy thesis.
I think that’s why I resist letting others label me as defective, disabled, diseased, etc. I view sex as simply one part of a complicated equation of marital bliss. The answer to the conundrum is not to shame gay people into viewing themselves as some kind of sub-human species (as Gagnon would implicitly have us do and as you seem wont to do). Rather, the answer is to take a hammer to our Hallmark-card view of marriage and recover it as the workaday, earthy, pragmatic institution it was intended to be.
Goodness gracious Bobby! If you think I am an ardent proponent of Gagnon you do not know my writing well at all. And if you think I view gay people as sub-human then I don’t know who you are confusing me with! 🙂
I have used the physical disability analogy but solely from a perspective of eliminating the conservative propensity to place sexual orientation in the realm of moral fallenness which I find quite toxic–it suggests a gay person has character flaws and is evil. Natural fallenness has no such judgment. I also have used it from a purely scientific perspective–there are in fact studies that suggest something may be going on in utero. So, I find it puzzling when people try to ignore science. Perhaps I don’t have the same negative view of congenital conditions as you do because I was born with another disability, and I don’t think of myself as sub-human as a result! I also worked in the field of disability rights/advocacy for 10 years. Thus, I might challenge some of your prejudices of disability. In any case, I actually think etiology of same-sex attraction is diverse and it is different for different people. For some it may be a natural occurring phenomenon.
However, I fully agree with you that the over emphasis on romantic/sexual attraction has served to destabilize marriage. Although I do see it as still important. I have a friend who is in a celibate marriage (did not realize she was gay until after married). This has been extremely painful for her husband. But he loves her and wants to stay with her. I don’t know if the marriage will last indefinitely. I have another friend, not gay, who I suspect is asexual. She had no interest in sex with her husband and found it very painful. Thus, they had a celibate marriage for 10 years until he couldn’t handle it anymore and they divorced. Paul the Apostle encourages marriage as a help against sexual immorality because he understood the power of our sexual drive and a need for a place to channel it. So, I think to say sexual attraction has no relevance to marriage would be to go too far–but perhaps that is not what you are saying.
I do think that the Protestant position that has changed the definition of marriage primarily to companionship and sanctification does not provide any solid rationale for not allowing same-sex marriages. The Catholic church is much more logically consistent in maintaining that procreation is part of the definition of marriage (which is also the biblical understanding). It is interesting that you hold up Luther and Calvin since the companionship view of marriage finds its seeds in the Reformation. And the reason the Protestant church has no room for celibates is because of Luther’s over the top renunciation of it in his quest to end mandatory celibacy for priests.
Thanks so much for clarifying.
I misinterpreted the disability analogy. By it, I thought you meant to imply that gay people somehow suffer from some inherent defect that makes them unable to be pleasing to God relative to straight people. I’m still not altogether comfortable with the analogy, but I get where you’re coming from.
I’m ok to take the hammer to the Hallmark idea of marriage, but I’ll also take the hammer to your idea that marriage was intended to be just a workaday pragmatic arrangement. This sounds like something Marxists might have dreamed up along with their exaltation of the proletariat. Who would want to get trapped in an arrangement that was about taking out the trash and changing diapers? No thanks, I’ll remain single and have friends with benefits.
Biblically, this debased view is also way off-base. The bible is all about marriage, weddings, brides and bridegrooms. It’s through and through–from Genesis to Revelations. The biblical idea of a one-flesh union is not at all workaday. Speaking of one-flesh unions, it’s all about sex. Sex is the core of marriage. Sex is not but one of many parts of marriage. It’s the be all end all of it all.
Why would adultery be such a big deal if marriage were mostly pragmatic?
I’ve got to get out to the tool shed and get a sledgehammer.
I think some of the things I said weren’t very clear. For starters, I was using “illicit,” when attached to a desire, as “desire to do something illicit.” I wasn’t actually trying to argue that it was inherently sinful to feel a sexual attraction to someone you aren’t married to, but simply that, when directed to certain people (like those already married to someone else, or people other than your spouse if you’re already married, or people the same sex as you) it can only be fulfilled in a sinful way. In other cases, like when directed to even a potential spouse, it can direct towards the good gift of marriage. It is true that “homosexual” as a category excludes the positive aspects in a way that “heterosexual” as a category does not, but I’m not convinced that framing things as “homosexual” vs. “heterosexual” is a sufficient way to look at things.
I’m not sure that “normal biology” and “result of the Fall” or “condition” can be separated in an uncomplicated manner. For example, reduction in eyesight and hearing is an absolutely typical result of the biological aging process. This loss of function, however, is something that I don’t think is actually “good.” After all, we use glasses, cataract surgery, and hearing aids to try to overcome these things.
To me this seems like a potentially helpful analogy, although it may have downsides I haven’t thought of yet. I do think that asking someone to repent of experiencing sexual attraction may be similar to asking an older adult to repent of his or her poor eyesight. It’s just not going to happen, and will make a person feel unnecessarily bad about himself or herself. But I also think that saying that nothing is wrong at all, in either case, may be incorrect.
Does that at least make things a little clearer?
I think what Karen means is quite straight forward. Please Karen carrier me if I’m wrong…
To her and to myself homosexuality is a disability just as any other ailment of the body or the mind. You don’t need to repeant from it, God is not displease with you just because you have it, you are not a lesser kind of human because you have it, you are not morally inferior because you have it. It is just like being born with out a finger or a toe. Or with ADD.
It is not what God intended when we created us. It makes our lives more difficult. It takes away from us some of God’s gifts and things He would like us to experience. In this sense asexuality is also a disability together with sex addiction (including heterosexual sex addition).
The only thing I may differ from Karen is that she always states that puberty is when sexuality begins (or this is what I make of her posts) whereas I state that sexuality is inherent to us and is and intrinsic part of us that manifests itself differently at different stages of life.
Not sure if this was specifically meant as a reply to me. WordPress says so, but often the comment system is weird.
I wasn’t so much trying to understand what Karen was trying to say as clarifying my own comments. She responded to an argument I made in a way that I think misunderstood me. I think this was largely my fault in not wording things carefully enough, so I was offering a clarification on my previous argument. Just want to make sure that was understood.
Agree, nothing to repent of. What a pity that some have bad eyesight, others are hard of hearing , and others can’t make it with a woman! Alas, I find myself in the latter category.
Well, actually I can, and I do want to, yet I also have desire to make it with a man. And that just screws everything up!!! Ay que lastima!
Hi Jeremy, most of my response was a general response to the thread as a whole after reading everyone’s comments. In terms of your argument, I was just suggesting that you and Daniel were talking past each other a bit. And that Daniel was making a reasonable point.
Yeah, it’s a disability, a sexual disability. God love us!
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Not related to the immediate prior comments… but to the original post’s ideas about how we differ as gay men from straight men and how that can lead to positive relationships:
Isn’t another such sanctifiable grace of homosexuality the opportunity it can provide for opposite sex friendships as well? I just posted a piece on that: http://ohappyfall.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/a-different-sanctifiable-grace-of-gayness/
Sorry for the self plug, but this post, along with the earlier “Is Gay Sanctifiable?” inspired mine so it seemed fair.
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