In contemporary Western culture, it’s common to describe oneself as gay, straight, or bi, depending on whether one’s sexual attractions are primarily directed to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid either the terminology or the assumptions behind it.
As I have said before, I think that the contrast between carnal and spiritual friendship, as described by Aelred of Rievaulx, ultimately provides a more helpful framework for understanding Christian teaching on same-sex friendship and homosexuality than the framework that categorizes people based on sexual orientation. However, sexual orientation categories are difficult to avoid. It’s not just a matter of words used: it’s also a matter of much deeper assumptions that shape the way people interpret their experience.
In this post, I want to examine these categories more closely. Doing so will, I hope, provide insight into why the writers at Spiritual Friendship have been willing to engage with—and how we have tried to challenge—the categories of sexual orientation and sexual identity in contemporary culture.
This post reflects on broad themes that have come up again and again in posts on Spiritual Friendship. I have therefore included a large number of links to relevant posts to provide context. A reader who has questions about the way we talk about sexual orientation may find this post—and the posts it links to—helpful for gaining a broader, more in-depth perspective on what we’re trying to accomplish.
What is Sexual Orientation?
It’s helpful to begin with what is, I think, a reasonably uncontroversial descriptive account. With the rare asexual exception, the overwhelming majority of people experience sexual attraction to various people during the course of their life. Most people’s sexual attractions are directed exclusively to persons of the opposite sex; some experience some mixture of sexual attractions to persons of either sex, and a few experience sexual attractions only to persons of the same sex. In common parlance, those who fit the first description are straight, those who fit the second bi, and those who fit the third, gay. (For simplicity, I will use the term gay to include both men who are primarily attracted to men and women who are primarily attracted to women.)
Now, what is the significance of these categories? How much will we have in common with others in the same category? How much, if at all, should membership in one of these categories shape our behavior, our vocation, our sense of self?
It’s a common assumption that sexual desires are so important that we need to act on them in order to have a fulfilling life. If this were the case, then these categories would be extremely important. And this assumption is why many see moral or legal opposition to same-sex relationships as discriminatory: it denies a fundamental aspect of a good and flourishing human life to gay people (and, to a lesser extent, to bisexuals).
How Have Even “Conservative” Christians Exaggerated the Importance of Sex?
However, the assumed importance of sexual desire is also widespread in Christian circles. I have heard a number of Christians say that “homosexuality” must be a choice, because if people were exclusively attracted to the same sex through no fault of their own, it would be unfair of God to forbid gay sex. And the naive promise that those who pray faithfully will experience orientation change and fulfillment in marriage is a (misguided and frequently dishonest) attempt to hold onto the form of traditional Christian sexual ethics while uncritically accepting the assumption that fulfillment of sexual desires is an important part of a good human life. By claiming that God would miraculously change sexual desires, it becomes possible to affirm this assumption while holding to the traditional Christian teaching that God intended for sexual intimacy to occur only between a man and a woman.
This is probably part of the reason that celibacy, which had such a rich place in both the Eastern and Western branches of the Christian tradition, had such an awkward place in the exgay movement. Its value was usually not fully denied, but was relegated to an awkward afterthought. It could not be integrated into the heart of the message.
This is also probably the reason that a number of prominent exgay leaders—John Paulk and John Smid come most immediately to mind—lied outright about the extent to which their sexual desires had changed. Others simply used obscure jargon or questionable statistics to hold out unrealistic hopes of healing. It is also probably the reason why organizations like Focus on the Family preferred to put exgay leaders like John Paulk forward, rather than other leaders who were more honest about ongoing struggles and less willing to make categorical promises of orientation change. It is, of course, embarrassing that men who offered such confident testimonies to total healing have now left their wives to pursue gay relationships. But Christian idolatry of sex and marriage made the demand for such testimonies inevitable.
What Sort of Category is Sexual Orientation?
At Spiritual Friendship, a number of us have tried to make clear that although we are willing to start with the common language and categories of sexual orientation, we do not think that these describe us at an ultimate level. As Chris Damian pointed out,
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.
Like Chris, I describe myself as gay because my sexual attractions are almost always directed toward someone of my own sex. Jeremy Erickson describes himself as bisexual because his sexual attractions have been directed toward persons of both sexes.
For myself, one of the reasons that it is important to simply and straightforwardly acknowledge that I am gay is that I have seen how much damage was done by the strange semantic games many in the exgay movement have played to conceal ongoing homosexual attraction.
The first definition for the word “gay” on Dictionary.com is “of, relating to, or exhibiting sexual desire or behavior directed toward a person or persons of one’s own sex; homosexual.” Although I am celibate, I still fit that definition with regard to sexual desire, so I accept the label.
How Has Spiritual Friendship Tried to Nuance This Category?
However, along with a number of other writers at Spiritual Friendship, I have tried to point out that the experience of attraction to another person is more complex than just lust or an attraction to body parts or desire for sexual pleasure. Jeremy Erickson, Chris Damian, Nick Roen, Julie Rodgers, and Wesley Hill have also written about experiences in which their attraction to someone of the same sex is not reducible to lust.
It’s common to unthinkingly equate attraction to other people with sexual attraction (this is one reason I don’t think the term “same-sex attraction” is nearly as clear or helpful as some Christians involved in conversations about homosexuality think). I think that the more nuanced exploration of the different ways in which we are drawn to other people is helpful for separating out the desire for healthy, Christ-centered friendship from temptations to lust.
What Alternatives Do We Offer?
Another fruit of this more nuanced understanding of attraction can be found in the testimonies of married writers like Melinda Selmys, Kyle Keating, Mike Allen, and Nate and Sara Collins. None of these writers describe themselves as straight; Melinda describes herself as “queer”; Mike, Nate, and Brian describe themselves as “gay.” Yet each is also in love with their spouse and speaks of a meaningful emotional, spiritual, and physical relationship with their spouse.
We have also tried to shed new light on the practice of celibacy. Classic discussions of celibacy have focused primarily on those who voluntarily choose celibacy. But I have written about the need to look at not only those who “make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom,” but also those whose celibacy is forced by circumstance. And Aaron Taylor has drawn attention to Pope Pius XII’s encouragement to those who are “called to a celibacy unchosen”:
When one thinks of the women who voluntarily renounce matrimony in order to consecrate themselves to a life of contemplation, sacrifice, and charity, immediately there comes to one’s lips a luminous word: vocation!
[But] this vocation, this call of love, makes itself felt in very diverse ways . . . The young Christian woman who remains unmarried in spite of her own desires may”if she firmly believes in the providence of the heavenly Father”recognize in life’s vicissitudes the voice of the master: Magister adest et vocat te ”the Master is at hand, and is calling you . . . . In the impossibility of matrimony, she discerns her vocation.
Chris Damian has written about how Blessed John Henry Newman’s words helped him to deal with the fear of celibacy, and how prayer teaches us to see each other with chaste eyes. Gregg Webb reflected on how the cloud of witnesses helps to inspire and sustain him in living a celibate life, and Julie Rodgers has explored celibacy and the freedom to love.
What these stories—whether of marriage or of celibacy—have in common is our willingness to honestly acknowledge our sexual attractions, and our unwillingness to listen to those attractions as the last word about who we are or how we ought to love. Instead, we explore the different ways that God calls us to our particular vocation or calling in the world—whether married or celibate.
A lot of people in our culture are trying to make sense of their feelings—including but not limited to sexual desires—for the same sex. And there are a lot of scripts out there for how to do that. In our discussions of Christ-centered friendship, marriage, and celibacy, we have tried to offer different scripts which are more congruent with the historic Christian faith. Our stories begin with experiences not unlike what other gay and bisexual people are going through, but lead toward the truths about human love and human sexuality revealed in the Bible and safeguarded by the people of God for thousands of years.
I hope that what ultimately guides the conversation at Spiritual Friendship is not sexual desire, or sexual orientation: it is Christ-centered friendship. One of the things that is striking to me about the stories that married couples have shared is how much the success of their marriage is grounded on an attraction that grew out of friendship. Thus Mike Allen, for example, writes,
This part of my life was marked by periods of real spiritual growth and close communion with Christ, as well as times of faithlessness and desperate grabs at happiness outside of God’s design. And through it all, there was Anna right beside me. We became close confidants and shared everything with each other. Our bond grew as time passed, and I think we both gradually understood that such a relationship between a man and woman (one that I had never before experienced) would inevitably lead to marriage, though the idea seemed impossible, and we couldn’t see how that transition would actually take place.
And in our fragmented, couple-centric society (and churches), it’s easy to fear that celibacy will equal loneliness. The original reason Wes and I created Spiritual Friendship was to explore how recovering a Christian understanding of friendship could provide a helpful framework for ministry to gay/bisexual/lesbian Christians.
At the same time, we recognize that both marriage and friendship are arduous goods. In addition to talking about the value of friendship, we have tried to speak honestly about all the ways friendship can involve significant disappointment and struggle. And we have tried to present a similarly honest picture of the joys and struggles of marriage.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I would like to provide a more satisfactory conclusion which wraps everything up in a neat summary. But I see what is happening here more as an ongoing conversation about how to recover an authentically Christian understanding of things like love, friendship, vocation, marriage, and celibacy. I think that what we have said so far has made a useful contribution to recovering the counter-cultural message that love is not the same as sex, and reminding a Christian community that idolizes marriage of the scandal of celibacy. We have created space for the sort of sometimes difficult conversations about theology that help us to clarify and correct our ideas, and to sort out truth from error. And to acknowledge this is to point out why this conversation can’t yet be wrapped up with a simple summary: we still have a lot to sort out.
One might wonder why, if we think the concept of spiritual friendship is so much more helpful, we don’t spend more time talking about it directly, and less time talking about sexual orientation. I think it’s important to see, however, that we haven’t simply accepted the assumptions of sexual orientation language at face value and then tried to use those concepts to talk about Christian discipleship. Rather, as we have engaged with the concepts, we have also sought to challenge the assumptions behind them in a way that opens space for Christian discipleship.
In a recent post, Aaron Taylor pointed out that, in contemporary culture, questions about our “sexuality” have become interchangeable with the question, “who are we?” Freud thought that all human action was ultimately motivated by the desire for pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure. If this assumption were correct, then my sexual attraction would be the most powerful force shaping me, and thus the most important piece of information for answering the question, “who am I?” But, as Aaron ably points out, this over-focus on questions of sex—which is a problem for “traditional” as well as “progressive” Christians—ends up distorting the Gospel.
In trying to present a traditionally Christian understanding of vocation, friendship, celibacy, and marriage, I have tried to engage with the language and assumptions of our culture. But I don’t take those assumptions as givens about human nature. Rather, what I have tried to do, and what I think other writers at Spiritual Friendship have tried to do, is to critically examine those assumptions in light of our own experience. In doing so, I hope, we have helped to challenge some of the assumptions that most of our contemporaries bring into discussions of love and human relationships. However, instead of constantly referring to a medieval abstraction, we have often challenged those assumptions in light of our own experience—an approach which is likely to have much more appeal to the average reader.
At the same time, the existence of books like Aelred of Rievaulx’s dialogue on Spiritual Friendship suggests that we are moving in the direction of something that has much deeper and older roots in the Christian tradition than the kind of “conservative” Christianity which Chris and Aaron have recently criticized. There is a lot more work to be done to make this model a credible alternative in the modern world. But it is, I think, a task worth pursuing.