Several months ago, I got into a discussion with Wes Hill and Matt Anderson about Wes’s post, Is Being Gay Sanctifiable? At the time, I drafted a post in response to that conversation, but did not have time to polish it for publication. In light of the more recent discussions of language (including Wes’s On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment and Matt’s Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry), I decided to revise and expand the draft.
I want to reflect on what the word “gay” is about—that is, what experience or set of experiences does it point to? (I also want to ask similar questions about “friendship.”) But before doing so, I want us to think about a very different example: the word “ship.” Consider Eustace Scrubb’s response when he found himself magically transported into Narnia and embarked on the Dawn Treader. He wrote in his diary,
It’s madness to come out into the sea in a rotten little thing like this. Not much bigger than a lifeboat. And, of course, absolutely primitive indoors. No proper saloon, no radio, no bathrooms, no deck-chairs. I was dragged all over it yesterday evening and it would make anyone sick to hear Caspian showing off his funny little toy boat as if it was the Queen Mary. I tried to tell him what real ships are like, but he’s too dense.
For Eustace, “ship” referred to a modern ocean modern liner like the Queen Mary; while for the Narnians, “ship” meant a small sailing vessel like the Dawn Treader. The word is the same, and certain key elements of the concept are the same, but what the word is about is different.
When, as a boy, I read Luke’s description of the Apostle Paul’s journey on a “ship” (in Acts 20-21), I imagined him getting on board something like the MV Coho (above), which I rode several times a year from Port Angeles to Victoria and back again. When I got a little older and realized that Paul had been on a sailing ship, my mental imagery tended to be drawn from the ships of the Age of Discovery, because that was the kind of sailing ship I most frequently encountered in my non-Biblical reading.
This is a common source of ambiguity in language. When I projected my own experience with ships into the story, the result was not completely misleading. Certain root elements of the concept of “ship” were shared between the ship that Paul rode on in the book of Acts and the “ships” that I saw sailing past when was on the waterfront, or the ships that I rode on trips to Seattle or Victoria. But there was still a certain significant level of misunderstanding in my reading of the text (though I doubt that misunderstanding led to any erroneous theological conclusions).
I use this example only because I want to discuss a different, though related, question: when someone uses or hears the word “gay,” what set of experiences or dispositions is the word about for them? And I will argue that different life stories produce differences in the word’s content that are probably larger than the differences between my boyhood concept of a “ship” and the concept of a “ship” that Luke had in mind when he wrote the book of Acts. These differences, in turn, make it easy for two people, looking at the same text, to assign very different meanings to the word “gay,” with the result that some readers project meanings into the text that were not present for the author. Here, the differences in meaning are much more theologically significant, and so need much more careful discussion.
I apologize in advance for the length of this post. I can only plead that this is an important topic. Because it has been a source of confusion, I believed it was worth the risk of boring readers to give a careful and in-depth response.
As I wrote this response, at certain points I chose to speak in the plural. When I say “we,” I am trying to present my understanding of what writers at Spiritual Friendship have been trying to say. However, although I believe that most of the writers at Spiritual Friendship would agree broadly with my explanations, this is not a joint statement that has been agreed to by all. I would not be surprised to find differences among us when it came to the details of self-understanding.
I want to begin with Denny Burk’s recent response to Wes:
Wesley says that “being gay” is not “reducible” to same-sex sexual attraction. In a limited sense, I would agree with that. I do not dispute that gay people report heightened emotional connections with the same sex that are non-sexual in nature. So maybe we would agree not to say that sexual desire is the only element that gay people experience as a part of their SSA. Nevertheless, sexual desire does seem to be the defining element. As I mentioned in a recent post, the defining element of same-sex attraction is desire for a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex. If same-sex sexual desire is removed from the equation, then we are no longer talking about SSA—at least not in the sense that modern people mean the term. When modern people talk about SSA, they intend a kind of attraction that includes sexual possibility between persons of the same-sex. They do not mean to label as gay every person capable of emotional bonds with a person of the same-sex. No, it is the same-sex sexual desire that is the constitutive element.
I want to draw attention to Burk’s claim that sexual desire is the defining and constitutive element. I am pretty sure that this is crucial to sorting out our misunderstanding.
First, I think that this helps to make clear why our critics are so focused on identity. I am, in some circumstances, willing to say “I’m gay.” But when I say this, I am not talking about my identity, in the sense that some of our critics use that term. I think it’s just a fact about myself. As Chris Damian wrote,
There are those who would say that identifying with the word “gay” is a distortion of human identity, that it is reductionistic and confines someone’s entire identity to just one aspect. This is a danger, but this is hardly what I (and my celibate gay friends) are doing. Human language can only work in broad categories. We create words for things, even though words have a danger of confining things. People will always be bigger than the words we use to describe them, and words will always have the tendency to give us narrow views. But this danger shouldn’t keep us from using words. I am a man; I am American; I am single; I am 5’10”; I am hungry; I am tired: I am happy: I am sad; I am studious; I am foolish; I am fallen; I am sinful; I am hopeful; I am inquisitive; and I am gay. I’m not just any one of these things, but I am all of these things. You could ask me to not categorize myself in terms of my sexual identity because I am not just my sexuality; but if you’re going to do that, you might as well not ask me to categorize myself at all.
English speakers say, “I am X” all the time without meaning that “X” is either a defining or constitutive element in their identity. As far as I can tell, our critics are missing this basic grammatical point. And this is at the root of much of their confusion about the way we speak. But I submit that the fault for this failure to communicate does not lie primarily on our side. This is not first time we have tried to point this out, nor are we talking about a particularly confusing point of English grammar.
So when we say “I’m gay,” we do mean to categorize ourselves in a certain way (I’ll say more about this before I’m done), but we do not mean that our sexual attractions are a defining or constitutive element in our identity.
However, I am not claiming that no one ever uses “I’m gay” to make a deep claim about identity. It’s obvious that sexual desire can be the defining or constitutive element of a person’s identity.
For example, in his autobiography, Not Afraid to Change, John Paulk described a life of promiscuity, substance abuse, prostitution, and sexual encounters so violent he was left bleeding. If we look at various aspects of John’s life at this time, it’s clear that his identity did revolve around his sexual desires. Many of his relationships were merely fleeting sexual encounters. While the picture is probably somewhat complex even for John, it would not be so far off the mark to say that his sexual desires were a defining and constitutive element of his pre-conversion gay life.
If this is the kind of story someone has in mind when they use the word “gay,” then it is not surprising that that person would see “gay” as an all-encompassing identity.
Other stories are very different from John’s, however. Jeremy Erickson recently offered a nuanced explanation of how his attractions to men were connected with but not reducible to sexual attraction.
In my own case, when I first realized I was attracted to a male friend, the attraction was not just an expression of lust or a temptation to lust, even when it included lust. In My Alternative Lifestyle, I wrote about a relationship I had in my later teens, a few years after my first realization that I was attracted to men. Although I certainly had strong romantic feelings for “Jason” (as I referred to him) and found him sexually attractive, I do not recall ever directly lusting after him. Yes, I was attracted to him, and yes, I certainly could have fantasized about him sexually if I had allowed myself to think of him in that way. But I was already convinced that homosexual activity would be contrary to God’s will, and by His grace, didn’t think of Jason in that way.
At the risk of enlarging an already lengthy post, I should point out that reading “My Alternative Lifestyle” could give the reader a false picture of the relationship. The editor who commissioned the article wanted me to talk about faith and homosexuality primarily in terms of my own experiences, rather than in the more argumentative, exegetical mode of my earlier writings on the topic. He also gave me a fairly limited word count. This meant that although I was writing about my own experience, I had to exclude a lot that was most meaningful to me about the relationship, and focus on what was most relevant to the question the editor had asked me to write about.
I could have written at length about our theological arguments about the existence of God or the problem of pain. I could have described long hikes in the Olympic and Cascade mountains, or the hours we spent honing our skills in Microsoft flight simulator. There were the books we read and discussed, the movies we watched, the trips to the Museum of Flight, or the time spent working on his car. We built two different radio controlled airplanes out of balsa wood, and we often went to the airport to watch real planes take off and land.
If I had written about all that, it would have been interesting to me and perhaps others with similar interests, but not very relevant to a short article whose main theme was supposed to be how I accepted Church teaching on homosexuality. No article can cover all bases, and I think “My Alternative Lifestyle” makes a meaningful contribution to the discussion. But it’s also a narrow contribution, focused on addressing one set of concerns, while omitting others in an effort to fit into a few pages in a magazine.
The first thing to assert here is that sexual desires were neither the defining nor the constitutive element of this relationship. It would also be unhelpful to deny that sexual desire was present and colored the relationship.
If I could characterize what I think is one of the unique contributions Spiritual Friendship can make to Christian discussions about homosexuality, it is that we recognize the existence of friendships like this, and are interested in bringing them into dialogue with Christian teaching on friendship. We believe that doing so may help to shift the discussion about homosexuality in a way that is simultaneously faithful to Biblical teaching and has more appeal to the gay, lesbian and bisexual community.
This might seem like something too far removed from mainstream experience to have much relevance to contemporary debates. Yet the experience is not nearly as marginal as some might think. Gore Vidal, in addition to maintaining a prolific homosexual sex life, also had a 53-year partnership with Howard Austen. The secret to their long relationship, Vidal said, was that they did not have sex with each other: “It’s easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part, and impossible, I have observed, when it does.” In Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival, Andrew Sullivan explores the way that friendship—often without sexual activity mixed in—was critical for binding the gay community together through the AIDS crisis. And finally, John Corvino, one of the more prominent advocates for same-sex marriage, has written this about a relationship he shared with a fellow graduate student:
The relationship is hard to explain to people who didn’t know us (and even to some who did). It was passionate but not sexual; full of conflict yet strangely comfortable. The contradictions suited us. Most people were unaware that we didn’t have sex, which was fine with us. (How many of us know the details of our partnered friends’ sex lives?) Some would say the relationship didn’t “count”, but it counted to us, and that was what mattered.
I want to be clear that I am not saying that these friendships are holy simply because they don’t include sex. Like all human relationships, these friendships are in need of sanctification. But I don’t see any reason to assume that either lust or overt sexual sin is a defining or constitutive element of these friendships. Therefore, any way of talking about them which takes this as central may easily lead to misunderstanding, just as there will be some degree of misunderstanding between those whose mental image of a ship is the Queen Mary and those whose whose mental image of a ship is the Dawn Treader. If you think a “real ship” needs a saloon, radio, bathrooms, and deck-chairs, you are of course going to say that the Dawn Treader isn’t even a “real ship.”
In the same way, if your idea of a gay person is the life John Paulk describes in Not Afraid to Change, then either you will make false (and libelous!) assumptions about us when we say that we’re gay, or you will say that what we’re talking about isn’t “really gay.”
But before we can have productive arguments about what labels to use, we need to make sure that we understand as clearly as possible what we are trying to label. It seems to me that our critics have often rushed to talk about “gay identity” without either making clear what they mean by the term or trying to understand what we might mean when we describe ourselves as gay and celibate. This has been a source of frustration for me for quite some time.
I am therefore gratified to see that Burk, Strachan, and others are trying to spell out their concerns more clearly so that we can respond and clarify sources of confusion. Moreover, I am sympathetic to at least some of their concerns.
Not long after Wes and I met, he was talking about embracing being “gay” as something broader than just “the desire to sleep with men,” something connected with intimacy and joy in chaste same-sex friendships. As should be clear from what I’ve said about my own experiences, I understood the point he is trying to make, and, with proper qualifications, I could agree with much of what he was saying.
But I also thought that there was a real danger of miscommunication (and the fact that we’ve spent so much time responding to critics on this point shows that I was right about that). Here is what I said at the time:
Let’s say you have something—we’ll call it X—which enables you to enjoy greater depths of intimacy and joy in chaste same-sex friendships than most men. Let’s further say that, connected with X, is a temptation toward violations of chastity with men. Why would “homosexuality” be the best label for X? More generally, for any category which has mixed good and bad components, why define the category by the fallen bit?
In the first dialogue of the treatise on Spiritual Friendship, sections 33-49, Aelred distinguishes between three kinds of friendship: carnal friendship, which is focused on carnal pleasure; worldly friendship, based on shared advantage; and spiritual friendship, friendship in God based on mutual pursuit of virtue and perfection.
For Aelred, then, friendship can, in its degenerate forms, give rise to sinful sexual acts, but in its perfected form, it can be a source of greater joy than in either of its degenerate forms, and a great encouragement and help to salvation.
It is not surprising, given the gradual decay of friendship in western culture in the last few hundred years, combined with the rise of the Freudian assumptions about sex, that most of us would be more likely to have first identified what we were feeling as “gay” or “homosexual,” and only later, by swimming very much against the current, begun to articulate the value of chaste friendship.
But it’s not clear to me why, given a traditionally Christian understanding of human sexuality, we would want to make homosexuality primary and friendship part of a larger category that is somehow connected to it.
This is one reason that, when we created this blog, I wanted to make “Spiritual Friendship” as our main theme, rather than using the word “gay” in the title or subheading (Wes, of course, had no objections to this suggestion).
I thought it was important to call the blog Spiritual Friendship because I think—and have repeatedly said—that Aelred’s of Rievaulx’s distinction between carnal and spiritual friendship is a much more helpful way of framing the discussion than the sexual identity language of our culture. I also think—and have repeatedly said—that “vocation” is a more helpful category than “identity” when thinking about how I ought to live. We talk about spiritual friendship because that provided an important epiphany which helped us to escape from the false assumptions about sexuality embedded in contemporary discourse both among conservative Christians and the secular gay community.
So I’m sympathetic to the lament that modern society would regard the kind of friendship I shared with Jason as “gay.” I think that the exaltation of romance and marriage, and the loss of appreciation for friendship, is a very bad thing.
One way that I think I would differ with Wes: I am less inclined to think Burk and Strachan are pre-modern, and more inclined to suspect they are post-Freudian: they focus on “sexual identity” in a way that I have not seen in any pre-modern Christian writing. This explains, I think, the focus on sexual desire as the defining and constitutive element in their thinking about the subjects we write about.
Here is what I think of when I think of a pre-modern response. In the third dialogue on Spiritual Friendship, two young monks ask Aelred of Rievaulx about a passionate friendship. He responds:
This is a carnal friendship, especially belonging to adolescents, as were Augustine and the friend of whom we spoke. However, if you avoid childishness and dishonesty, and if nothing shameful spoils such friendship, then in hope of some richer grace this love can be tolerated as a kind of first step toward a holier friendship. As devotion grows with the support of spiritual interests, and as with age maturity increases and the spiritual senses are illumined, then, with affection purified, such friends may mount to higher realms, just as we said yesterday that because of a kind of likeness the ascent is easier from human friendship to friendship with God himself.
Aelred is quite clear that carnal friendship—the kind of immature friendship he says these monks share—can be a source of sexual temptation. But he does not think that sexual temptation defines or is the “constitutive element” in the relationship. That way of speaking seems to draw more on Freudian ideas about the centrality of libido; Aelred rightly thinks that the deepest human need is love, and evaluates the situation in terms of growth in love. If the monks avoid sin and grow in their relationship with God, then this friendship—which could be a source of temptation—may be sanctified. Not only so, but it can become a source of spiritual encouragement and growth, and a step forward in friendship with God.
I want to be clear that I am not saying that my relationship with Jason was wise, or that I would promote the same sort of relationship now. But it was far from the most foolish of the foolish things teenagers do as they try to sort out their sexual and romantic feelings. It embodied a lot of misunderstandings about Christian love, friendship, and sexuality. It could be a source of temptation. But the relationship did not make us arsenokoitai, any more than an unmarried man and a woman who hold hands or cuddle while watching a movie are pornoi.
I would strongly argue that—whatever word we use to describe it—this sort of friendship is sanctifiable.
Yet this sort of story often produces a more viscerally negative reaction from many Christians than actual fornication, which has been so normalized that it no longer shocks even the Christian conscience. This observation, which I have made over and over in talking about this issue and my own experience with other Christians, does not seem to me to be a credit to the Christian conscience, as it has been formed in the United States in the last couple of generations.
I appreciate the fact that Baptist leaders like Denny Burk and Owen Strachan are trying to clarify questions around sexual desire and friendship. I welcome the opportunity to engage in thoughtful dialogue with them about these important questions.
But it’s also important to stress that this is a more recent development. I grew up Southern Baptist, and for many years, Baptists as a whole did not try to draw these distinctions. They made sweeping condemnations of “homosexuality,” with little, if any, effort to be precise about what aspect of same-sex desire they were referring to or provide helpful pastoral guidance in dealing with those temptations. There was certainly no effort to distinguish between prohibiting same-sex sexual activity, while affirming the positive aspects of same-sex friendship.
The fruit of that sloppy (and often brutal) thinking was a generation with a sloppy understanding of sexuality and very negative experiences with the Church. At the same time, the leaders of the Baptist Church I grew up in—like many other Baptist leaders—hypocritically tolerated divorce and remarriage.
As a Christian whose faith was almost destroyed by Southern Baptist preaching on homosexuality, I would like it if Southern Baptist leaders—and Christian leaders more generally—realized that they will be more likely to persuade gays and lesbians to listen to them if they make sorrow and repentance for past approaches to this issue more central to their present speaking and writing, and make more of an effort to understand before they try to correct.
I am not saying that past hypocrisy disqualifies them from making a productive contribution to this discussion. I am not saying that because they have been soft on other sexual sins, they should be soft on homosexual sin. The writers at Spiritual Friendship affirm that both homosexual sex and homosexual lust are sins to be repented of. The desire for these is a temptation that must, with the assistance of God’s grace, be resisted.
We certainly endorse the possibility of opposite sex marriage as an option for same-sex attracted Christians, and have made that discussion more central to the conversation here at Spiritual Friendship than celibacy ever was at Exodus International. But we also think that modern discussions of sexuality often make an idol of marriage. We think that the neglect of celibacy in the contemporary Christian imagination makes it much more difficult for Christians to offer realistic pastoral guidance to gay and lesbian Christians. Not only this, but this poverty of imagination about celibacy leads to the ridiculous idea that Christ-centered celibacy does not involve healing and internal transformation.
When Wes or I use the word “gay,” it is, at least in part, about relationships which are sanctifiable, precisely because the basis of the relationship is not lust, but Christ-centered friendship, or at least a friendship that can, as Aelred describes, mature in Christ. This way of talking will cause confusion among those for whom “gay” is primarily associated with lustful promiscuity. And it is not meant to deny that temptation to lust may be a struggle for us in pursuing Christ-centered friendship (the fact that such temptations must be dealt with is one reason we continue to talk about our sexual orientation in the context of talking about chaste friendship).
It is unfortunate that our culture has formed such a close association between love and sex. This makes it difficult for many Christians to take New Testament texts on celibacy seriously. And it introduces a lot of confusion into our discussions of friendship: many people think of “spiritual friendship” as a kind of sexless marriage, which is a serious misunderstanding.
Nevertheless, this is the confused culture we live in, and if we want to preach the Gospel at all, we have to preach it to people who have grown up in this culture and been formed by it. 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.
Should we use the word “gay” when we talk about this kind of friendship? As I have already indicated, there are good reasons to worry this can lead to misunderstanding. But we can also point to the examples I gave above—Gore Vidal, Andrew Sullivan, John Corvino—to suggest that we are talking about something that is already part of the conversation in the gay community, and provides a better starting point for outreach than the harsh condemnations that have been all too typical of Christian responses to gay and lesbian people in the last couple of generations.
And what about “friendship”? In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis lamented the loss of an appreciation of friendship as a deep and intimate relationship in the modern world. If “friendship” only refers to the often transitory acquaintanceship common in modern life, it won’t mean much as an alternative to the romantic and sexual relationships which often become idols in contemporary culture, including contemporary Christian culture. It is therefore necessary to recover the kind of much deeper, more intimate friendship we see between David and Jonathan, Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, among the monks in Aelred’s dialogues, or between Tennyson and Arthur Hallam.
In invoking these examples, I am not claiming that any of these friends experienced sexual temptation toward each other. I am, however, claiming that properly understanding and celebrating the true intimacy found in these friendships will be a valuable corrective to the false ideas about love and intimacy found in gay culture.
Given the degree to which the sexual revolution has reshaped even Christian thinking, almost any language we use is going to involve risks of confusion and misunderstanding. Most of the important words for articulating the Christian tradition in these matters—”marriage,” “friendship,” “celibacy”—are likely to mislead because the examples we experience are not only distorted by the ordinary twists of original sin, but also distorted by the pervasive influence of the sexual revolution. This is a difficult problem. The only solution I see is to try to translate our message into language that is familiar to the culture, while constantly clarifying what we mean, so that we will counteract misunderstandings.
Thus, while we talk about being gay, we also talk about being celibate—an immediate challenge to those in the gay community who see sexual fulfillment as the defining and constitutive element in their life. I think our approach is open to challenge, but it also opens up important possibilities that should not be casually dismissed.
I end by re-affirming that I do not think that “gay” describes any deep fact about who I am in Christ. But because of the culture we all grow up in, it is an important part of how my experiences were organized growing up. If I want to help others sort out their experiences, and point them towards sanctification, I think it can be helpful to talk about the way that desires that I understood as “gay” growing up are, in fact, sanctifiable. This is not because same-sex lust is sanctifiable: that must always be repented of and mortified. It is rather because not all desire for deep intimacy with the same sex is lust. At least in some cases, the desire for intimacy can, when pursued in obedience to Christ, become a friendship that is not primarily a source of temptation, but rather a source of encouragement in sanctification, as is celebrated in this poem:
Then live, my strength, anchor of weary ships,
Safe shore and land at last, thou, for my wreck,
My honour, thou, and my abiding rest,
My city safe for a bewildered heart.
That though the plains and mountains and the sea
Between us are, that which no earth can hold
Still follows thee, and love’s own singing follows,
Longing that all things may be well with thee.
Christ who first gave thee for a friend to me,
Christ keep thee well, where’er thou art, for me.
Earth’s self shall go and the swift wheel of heaven
Perish and pass, before our love shall cease.
Do but remember me, as I do thee,
And God, who brought us on this earth together,
Bring us together to his house of heaven.
Note: If you’re keeping track at home, the author of this poem was probably thinking of a ship that looked something like this one: