“Celibacy for the Common Good”

Over at First Things today, I posted a summary of my 9-minute(!) talk last week at “Q Commons” at Gordon College in Massachusetts. Here’s a snippet:

I suggested that celibacy is an important reminder that love isn’t reducible to what we do in bed or over a candlelit table for two. It is a reminder that love exceeds the boundaries of the nuclear family. Celibacy is not about a heroic feat of willpower. It’s about giving up one way of expressing love in order to be able to love widely, profligately, indiscriminately. It’s about foregoing a spouse in order to love a community. It’s about giving up the possibility of children in order to become a spiritual father or mother in the family called “church.” It’s about being a little less entangled in the life of the world in order to be a little more free to celebrate the coming kingdom of God, in which none of us will be married and all of us will be spiritual friends with everyone else in the new creation that God will usher in. In the words of Ronald Rolheiser, “Celibacy, if properly lived, can be an important way to keep alive, visible and in the flesh, that part of the incarnation which tells us that when one is speaking of love, the human heart is the central organ.”

Please click through and read the whole thing! There’s a great quote from our own Eve Tushnet at the end.

5 thoughts on ““Celibacy for the Common Good”

  1. The word I trip over here is ‘choose’. Does one choose celibacy – does one have a choice? Does God or life or circumstance hand out two invitations one marked marriage and the other celibacy and we choose which one we want or is it rather we are handed one envelope and the choice is if we follow it or not? and there is no other option?

    I only ask the question this way because the idea of celibacy although spoken in this post as a long respected tradition has not been something entertained by mainstream church or culture therefore it is difficult to fathom an invitation to celibacy as a choice for those who are gay christians and believe in a traditional marriage. It is more a wrestling of oneself under the authority of God in obedience to what is commanded by him and many of us struggle with that command. Sometimes the emotional toll is too much to bear and sometimes we arrive at a place of peace about it.

    It is encouraging to see christians flourishing as celibate but difficult when we encounter struggles that are beyond our control such as continued isolation, fear of coming out, lack of support in local churches for example. Each person goes through a different experience that cannot necessarily be appreciated by others. So although, I find the article uplifting it is not necessarily as realistic as it can be because building a vocation takes time and in some cases the damage is already done in someone’s life when they haven’t been given that option or opportunity.

    Church congregations need to start to seriously look at the option of teaching the vocation of celibacy alongside marriage from the start and have examples of celibate christians in the congregation that are transparent and visible so one can see that it is a viable lifelong commitment. Is that even possible?

  2. I would echo Kathy’s concerns above.

    I have no quibble with the theological merits of the proffered argument. But I have no clue what it looks like on the ground. Wes and most other proponents of the gay celibate Christian (GCC) narrative are Christian academics, who, for that reason, are members of two different Christian communities: the community of fellow Cristian academics in their respective fields; and the community of the local church. And I’d guess that they receive far more spiritual nourishment and support from the former than from the latter. That was certainly the case for me during my years as a professor at an evangelical liberal arts college.

    At that time, I never appreciated how significant my academic Christian community was to my spiritual health. When I left academia to become an attorney, I was suddenly forced to rely on the local church for spiritual nourishment. The difference was stark. It was like going from fine dining to prison rations. And that was when I was still in the closet. It got far worse when I came out of the closet, even though I was celibate. Among those in my local church who knew that I was out of the closet, I was pretty much written off as a pariah. And, mind you, I wasn’t in some rural backwater. I was attending a 500-member suburban PCA church in which nearly everyone had a college degree.

    As Wes seems to imply, celibacy only makes sense in a church community that is committed to sustaining it as a vocation. Otherwise, it quickly devolves into a self-righteous navel-gazing exercise. Of course, if the church is going to sustain celibacy as a vocation, it also has to sustain marriage as a vocation. And that’s where the rub generally lies: Most evangelical churches long ago made a certain pragmatic peace with the modernist redefinition of marriage. That pragmatic peace is embodied in what we have come to know as the “family values” movement. And in that environment, the GCC narrative isn’t merely odd, it’s a threat.

    The GCC narrative and the family values narrative are fundamentally at odds. The former rejects the modernist redefinition of marriage, while the latter has come to accept it (with certain moralistic qualifications). So, I see little hope for being able to practice the GCC narrative unless one has access to a robust Christian community that has come to reject the family-values approach to Christianity. Good luck with that! If you’re a Christian academic, you can probably find that kind of community among Christian scholars in your field. The rest of us are on our own. If you’re an evangelical of any stripe, you’re probably SOL.

    As a former theoretical physicist, I’d be the first to admit there’s often utility in doing something simply for its theoretical value. That’s how I’ve come to see the GCC narrative. After 18 months of trying to live out the GCC narrative in the real world of family-values Reformed evangelicalism, I’ve concluded that the GCC narrative is little more than an interesting theoretical exercise. It’s probably workable for those who have the option of plugging into a parallel network of evangelical scholars. But not for the rest of us.

    As for me, I think I’ve decided that I’ll probably go with a mixed-orientation marriage or a same-sex relationship. I prefer the former, as I believe that it falls closer to the ideal for human flourishing. But, after an 18-month struggle with my former church and its unwillingness to wean itself from family-values Christianity, I have a hard time seeing same-sex relationships as being all that bad. After all, same-sex marriage and family-values opposite-sex marriage are simply two sides of the same modernist coin. And if we can accommodate the latter without calling Christian orthodoxy into question, I have a hard time seeing how the former poses any more significant problems. After all, it’s awfully hard to square the evangelical valorization of heterosexual desire with I Corinthians 7, but that doesn’t seem to be keeping anyone awake at night.

    • Evan 773 I appreciate your comments. I think you have a much better grasp on the overall picture than I do.

      As for myself, I don’t think it squares well with me that we should let go of traditional teaching in favour of same sex marriage but you are right we have the same concern. To say that one can simply start living a celibate life in community with others and expect to have the full support of your church is unrealistic. It works for some but it is always a risk. In some cases it will work out nicely in other cases it will make life more difficult.

      For example the person who already works a full time job, has ailing parents and other commitments or disadvantages, lack of resources, few friendships, health issues, they are not looking for a vocation, because they are already in the mess of their life. They need support right now at ground level from their church community in the form of friendship, discipleship and encouragement. If they are just coming out or just becoming Christian or just accepting they are a gay Christian it may take a few years to get well grounded and accept who they are in Christ.

      Half the battle for myself was just getting to the point of believing I could be a Christian despite my sexuality. The gospel is for everyone and God is interested in calling LGBT persons into a relationship with himself, that is the most important message another Christian can share.

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