Editor’s Note: When the founders and regular writers at Spiritual Friendship originally got together, we united around the following statement: “God created us male and female, and His plan for sexual intimacy is only properly fulfilled in the union of husband and wife in marriage.” But we also recognize that there are many folks in the church who are still trying to come to grips with traditional Christian sexual ethics and aren’t as certain as we are of what they embrace. Others are pretty sure that we at SF are wrong, and so they are instead upholding what’s come to be called a “Side A” stance (that God blesses monogamous, faithful same-sex sexual partnerships). Those of us who edit and write regularly at SF haven’t changed our views at all, but we do from time to time want to offer a platform to friendly dissenters.
Tim Otto (MTS, Duke Divinity School), the pastor for teaching and preaching at Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, is someone who identifies as gay, Christian, and “Side A,” but he’s also celibate. And Tim has remarkably insightful things to say about celibacy—things that we believe our readers would want to hear and think about. So, although we and Tim aren’t in complete agreement, we want to share two recent reflections he’s written on his vow of celibacy with which we are in agreement. We want to share these two posts because we believe they’re compassionate, humane, insightful, and worth pondering. We at SF are grateful for Tim Otto’s friendship, and we commend these posts to you for prayerful consideration. If you are interested in more, you may want to check out his book, Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships. You can also follow him on Twitter at @Tim_Otto or on Facebook. — Wesley Hill
I made a vow, six years ago, to be celibate. The night before the vow I went with friends to a trendy Tapas bar in San Francisco. Next to us a group of frat guys were making loud, boisterous toasts. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and soon we were lifting our glasses with them. At one point my friend, the mischievous Michael, hoisted his glass and bellowed, “To Celibacy!”
Everyone lifted their glasses and yelled, “Hear, hear!” and then those at the next table began muttering about what they had heard. “What?” “What did he say?” they asked each other.
Now, six years later I find myself asking, “What?” “What have I done?” It is not that I want to renounce the vow. I made the vow thoughtfully; I took the vow knowing it was the next faithful step for me in following Jesus. But as some of my married friends testify, the cost of a promise only becomes evident in the keeping of it.
I’m grieving the sacrifices it entails. I feel guilty about this. My church relates to Christians in South Sudan and as I write this I know that hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and are living in refugee camps. At its best, knowledge like that helps me keep a sense of perspective on the losses I feel. But I’ve found that if I’m not honest about my perceived losses, I descend into an oppressive, grey cloud. So I will name them and grieve them:
a. I miss the delight of a reciprocal love. Growing up gay in a conservative Christian home, I grew up believing that people would not love me if they knew about my orientation. I craved love but thought it was out of my reach. Eventually I realized that people did love me, even when they knew all about me.
And then there was a further revelation. I love loving. I love the little acts of gift-giving, homemaking with another, and need anticipation. I especially love those acts with someone whom I respect, whose returned respect calls forth more love from me. It is a sacred, synergistic circle. I realize, “Oh my God, the Trinitarian life of self-giving love that you live is manna, and life, and blessedness.” I lament not having that kind of relationship with another person.
b. I miss sex. As someone who inhabits an awkward, non-athletic, balding, startlingly pale body, I’d delight in the loving touch of another that—in Rowan Williams lovely phrase—communicates that my body is “an occasion for joy.” I hear songs like Over the Rhine’s “Let’s Spend the Day in Bed,” and think it would be healing for a lover to take joy in my embodied being, and for me to communicate delight in another’s body.
c. I miss having a special, vowed relationship. I have had the gift of many friends. But many of my best friends now live hundreds of miles away because of commitments more important to us than each other. Love, at its best, lasts long and is local. Distance has changed my friendships, and reduced them. I want someone to notice, and care about the little pains and joys of my daily life. I want to carry the pains and joys of a cherished other. I am one of God’s little creatures who wants to burrow with another.
I could go on, but that is enough for now. Having listed these perceived losses, I immediately feel the need to qualify them. Living in the context of an intentional community, I realize that I do get to experience many of the listed “losses” in various ways (even in relation to sex, I suspect I get touched and hugged more than many single people). I know some of my married friends are rolling their eyes at my imagined experience of marriage. I remember one friend, who was going through a very difficult patch in her marriage, saying to me “You think lying in bed alone every night is hell. Try lying in bed a foot away from another person all night knowing you are alone. That is hell!”
But still, listing my perceived losses helps me. As Wendell’s Berry’s character Jayber Crow reflects, “Some nights in the midst of this loneliness I swung among the scattered stars at the end of the thin thread of faith alone.” More than anything, as I mull over my list, I, it encourages me that I’m having faith.
Growing up in the evangelical church I thought of faith as an assent to some self-evident truths. Books like Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict, communicated that any intelligent, objective person who weighed the evidence would conclude that Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected according to the account in Scripture. Faith seemed to mean something like: assent to evident truths about God and God will make your life work out.
But I’ve come to believe that faith requires faith. By definition faith is a leap beyond what is certain, and thus faith means risk. It may mean something exactly like giving up what I feel would most make me happy (like having a partner) in trust that obedience to God’s call on my life will ultimately save me in the fullest sense. In spite of my doubts, by making a little holocaust of my own self-interest, I’m trusting that God is real and working in ways beyond what I see. I live by faith.
I don’t experience faith as a warm, fuzzy feeling. As Flannery O’Connor said, “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” Said that way, faith is revealed as the way to follow the Christ. That helps me, and encourages me, and gives me enough to keep going today.
And so I’ll lift my cup. It feels a little heavier than it used to. But still, I lift it up to God with faith and say in a chastened, but nonetheless hearty voice, “To celibacy!”
(In this post I tried to tell the truth about the sacrifice involved in celibacy. In an upcoming post, I’ll try to tell the truth about celibacy’s joys.)