The Future of Asceticism

Over the last couple of years, Eve Tushnet and I have batted around the idea of co-writing a blog post or essay as if we were looking back on the present from the vantage point of fifty years or so. What will be different in Christian conversations about homosexuality in several decades? And what will we wish we had changed sooner?

I’ve been thinking again about this as I’ve been reading the Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley’s newest book this past week, The New Asceticism: Gender, Sexuality and the Quest for God, which I hope to write a lot more about here in the days to come (and which I’ll be reviewing for Books & Culture). One of the main things Coakley is concerned to do in this book is to help us all achieve better, more Christian disagreements with each other, and the sort of future she imagines for “sexuality” discussions is one that I am powerfully drawn to.

On the one hand, she wants to believe that we can move away from thinking of marriage in terms set by our cultural habits of self-indulgence and self-expression. She wants us to think of marriage as, in some way, ascetic — a way of surrendering our lives to another and finding our desires and longings reordered in the process. She points out the element of sexual self-denial that is part of all long-lasting marriages: “a realistic reflection on long and faithful marriages (now almost in the minority) will surely reveal periods of enforced ‘celibacy’ even within marriages during periods of delicate pregnancy, parturition, illness, physical separation, or impotence, which are simply the lot of the marital ‘long haul’, realistically considered.”

But she also points out that even when both partners are able to give themselves fully to one another sexually (and in other ways), marriage is still about transformation. It’s about the reshaping and reconfiguring of the loves of each of the spouses—“the godly ordering of desire,” she calls it—not the rubber-stamping of the preexisting shape of their longings. Marriage doesn’t say, “We get to have all desires and longings met”; it says instead, “We get to have our desires and longings radically changed and sanctified by loving each other.”

On the other hand, Coakley wants us to reimagine celibacy as a life-giving path of asceticism. She talks about a “new” asceticism because she’s trying to bat away the modern suspicion of celibacy as either psychologically harmful or else just plain impossible. Rather than just repeating older (say, patristic) recommendations of celibacy, she confronts some of the modern objections to the practice and recommends it in a “new” way. Only if she goes through the suspicion rather than skirting it, she says, will her project ever prove attractive and compelling in contemporary churches. And she hopes it will prove attractive:

[O]nly a revived, purged — and lived — form of ‘ascetic’ life will rescue the churches from their current theological divisions and incoherences over ‘sexuality’; and only the same authentically ‘ascetic’ life will be demanding enough to command the respect of a post-Christian world saturated and sated by the commodifications of desire. When the ascetic life works, and works well, it unifies, intensifies, and ultimately purifies desire in the crucible of divine love, paradoxically imparting true freedom precisely by the narrowing of choices.

Coakley thinks that marriage and celibacy can be united under the umbrella of the transformation of desire. Or, putting it another way, she thinks that when we realize that both the vocation of being married and the vocation of being celibate are about not staying where we currently are but being completely purified and healed, then we’ll finally be thinking Christianly about asceticism.

What does all this have to do with being gay? Coakley doesn’t really try to hide the fact that she thinks there’s a strong Christian case for committed same-sex partnerships (and also same-sex marriage?). But—here’s the crucial point—she doesn’t talk about this in terms of affirming same-sex desire. She thinks same-sex partnerships must be imagined, like all erotic partnerships must be imagined, in terms of transformation, discipleship, and purification. If homosexuality can be thought of in this way, then “homoerotic desire could potentially be released from its cultural and biblical associations with libertinism, promiscuity and disorder.” Her approach, she writes,

makes ‘life-vows’ in… homosexual partnerships curiously similar to monastic vows of celibacy, and notably different from a careless or faithless approach to ‘marriage’… [T]he witness of gay couples, choosing to make public vows (and thus cutting not once, but twice, against cultural expectation), demands of us all a deeper reconsideration of the meaning, and costliness, of such vows in a world of rampantly promiscuous desires, the oppression of the poor, and the profligate destruction of natural resources.

(In this respect, Coakley’s argument resembles the one Eugene Rogers has been making for years:  “Marriage… [is] an ascetic discipline, a particular way of practicing love of neighbor. The vows do this: ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.’ Those ascetic vows—which Russian theologians compare to the vows of monastics—commit the couple to carry forward the solidarity of God and God’s people. Marriage makes a school for virtue, where God prepares the couple for life with himself by binding them for life to each other. Marriage, in this view, is for sanctification, a means by which God can bring a couple to himself by turning their limits to their good. And no conservative I know has seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than opposite-sex couples do.” And Steve Holmes has been making the point lately that this way of thinking opens the door to a much better argument than the one we’ve currently having in our churches: “I worry that, at its worst, the debate over sexuality in the modern Western church is between churches that say ‘if you are straight you have no need to re-order your erotic desires’ and churches that say ‘you have no need to re-order your erotic desires if you are gay or lesbian either’; these positions are equally wrong; they are both simple failures to believe the gospel; they have nothing in common with the true call to Christian discipleship.”)

So—returning to the question of what might be different in fifty years—I confess I’m expecting the churches to continue to be embroiled in “sexuality debates” for multiple decades. It may take us “another half-millennium” to sort out a faithful response to the Sexual Revolution.

But what if our debates could become more Christian, in this sense: What if the “conservatives” saw their task as re-enlivening celibacy, dignifying and disciplining its practice in “new” ways that moved beyond white-knuckled “repression”? And what if the “liberals” saw their task as imagining same-sex marriage as sanctifying and purifying desire, not “affirming” it in its present cultural constructions?

In fifty years, I’ll still be arguing, I expect, on the “conservative” side, for what I recognize as the church’s Scriptural and traditional teaching—that marriage is male-and-female, and that marriage and celibacy are the two God-given paths for living out our lives as sexual creatures. But I hope I’ll be arguing for that teaching in some of the ways Coakley imagines—looking, with all my fellow Christians, “liberal” and “conservative,” for the healing and transformation of desire in God.

25 thoughts on “The Future of Asceticism

  1. Thanks for your thoughts Wesley. you said: “And what if the “liberals” saw their task as imagining same-sex marriage as sanctifying and purifying desire, not “affirming” it in its present cultural constructions?”

    I agree affirmation is not the goal, but Liberals are on the right path as well— because affirmation is inherently a good thing, a way to encourage and support others, strengthen them, keep them in the goodness of the fellowship of Christ, sustain them no matter what they go through or endure, or what choices they make. You are beloved of God, you are a child of God, you are precious and gifted and cherished. No one can live off the avails of affirmation rather it is life giving in times of need, a memory which stays with you when you are struggling; a voice that encourages you when your own voice condemns you. Therefore affirmation is simply the cheering on of our friends and the starting point of sanctification and purification.

    The changes I experienced in my same sex relationship transformed me for the good. but because, I was not affirmed in that relationship by my Christian peers I could not be thankful for her in the way she deserved. I could not make that leap from being loved to being thankful for her love. I could not believe God would give me, an aberration, such a gift. So it was a lack of affirmation, a lack of thankfulness that ultimately influenced me and subverted my relationship. Some of my Christian friends still think that was a good thing.

    So there is much to be said for the rock and the hard place the Christian community puts the LGBT person in— one in which they are not affirmed as celibate and one in which they are not affirmed in marriage.

  2. Thanks for this. I look forward to the full review. Would it be sufficient for sanctification if the present cultural constructions of same-sex marriage were re-imagined in terms of transformation, discipleship and purification of desire, or would these processes always occur in spite of the context in which they were being sought, whatever construction were placed upon it?

    • Hi Robert –

      There’s been a consistent theme in religious circles that gay marriage redefines the institution to be about personal happiness and sexual satisfaction. Perhaps that view is not a reflection on gay couples specifically, but rather it’s a critique of a culture that sees church teaching as wrong and inherently harmful.

      The fact is that marriage is a covenant – a vow of lifelong, mutual self-sacrifice, care-taking and fidelity in the service of community. In other words, marriage is cruciform; that’s as true for gay couples as it is for straight couples. In my life, marriage has been a part of the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

      I think Dr. Hill is on the right track here. So long as religious conservatives continue to insist that objectively virtuous gay relationships are immoral, inferior, and detrimental to society; the Church will continue to lose moral authority and, more generally, basic credibility.

  3. Thanks Kathy, thanks Wesley,
    ‘Liberals are on the right path as well–because affirmation is inherently a good thing’. (I’m just trying to think this through, and in doing so, I might be wrong…). ‘Affirmation’ may be a good thing – for those being affirmed. But affirmation of one thing involves implicit or overt condemnation of those taking a different perspective. Both sides in this discussion (at least in its public manifestation) have made this a bipolar issue. One is either right and the other side is of the devil; or, the other side is right and this side is the devil’s equivalent. The ‘liberal’ side has been no more effective at avoiding the ministry of condemnation concerning those with whom it disagrees than the conservative Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox who have no place for the affirmation of a homosexual lifestyle or of same sex partnership. Nice words can only take one this far. Do you have any ideas about the way through for those of us caught in the middle of what seems an intractable theological, moral and relational mess?

    • Thanks Joseph, yes, I have an idea, though it might seem absurd (this is just me mulling over all the scripture I can think of and the complexity of this issue versus the simplicity)— the simple solution is we can believe in the power of nice words over not nice words. We can affirm those in Christ first and foremost no matter where they stand on the issue. Then we will find condemnation disappear among Christians.

      I think there is the difference between the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ tone but I won’t argue the point of who is ‘no better’ than the other with regards to condemnation because I see the dialogue as perpetuating the myth that we are separated. I think the divide is an illusion of our own making and the bridge does not need to be built and chasm is not really a chasm at all but a beautiful valley or meeting place or a place of rest for all people. Let each person read the scripture and let the Holy Spirit convict their heart and do it’s work within them.

      The complexity which is hard for us to grasp and accept is that God is transforming hearts, not separating people. God is an alchemist. He works with impossible materials and makes us Holy despite the impossibility of the task. But it is ‘us’ who think we need to do the work— to seek out and destroy sin. We want to prove others wrong through scripture because we see sin as something which is infectious. Like the leaven analogy yet we have conflicting analogies of the wheat and the tares. Or the ‘why wash the outside of the cup when the inside is dirty?’ Can anyone tell me what is on my inside? Only God can and does.

      We believe we can’t be around affirming LGBT people or those in same sex marriages because they might lead us to sin. But but as humans we fail to accomplish this because that kind of thinking is death. Paul said in Romans looking into the law leads to death. In my view the good thing about affirmation is not the niceness of it but the tough grace found in affirming all those who say they are Christians— not picking and choosing for yourself who we let in.

      • Or a better expression might be tenacious grace; holding on to each other and not letting go; like roots are entangled or even enmeshed with each other. But we are afraid of entanglements and why ? Self preservation?

      • And I might also add that there are a lot of folks out there (Justin Lee, Wendy Gritter, Andy Marin, and several hundred other people I know) who know how to disagree graciously about these matters without demonizing those with whom they do not agree. I don’t think this is rocket science really.

  4. I’m somewhat confused, because my understanding of “liberal” LGBTQ Christians is that they have been arguing for years this very exact thing…unless I’m misunderstanding what “sanctifying and purifying desire” means. Could we put some meat on those bones and help articulate what “sanctified and purified desire” is?

    • Indeed they have. But if same-sex desire is sinful, it will never work out that way.The healing and transformation will remain elusive.

      • That’s right Joe thus we are given mixed messages. Is the gay good or evil? If it is good then how can we say a same sex relationship is not good. That has been my issue with SF saying it is okay to take same sex desire and let it flourish in celibate relationships or vocation. I have no idea how that is done except to assuage the loneliness through productivity. As well same sex desire gas a sexual aspect to it which is largely avoided in this conversation.

      • Agreed with Kathy here 100%. If it will “never work out”…then all LGB people are doomed b/c that implies we are in fact inherently disordered. So no matter what we do, things will “never work out.” But if gay is good (as so many authors here suggest), then what exactly wouldn’t “work out” in gay marriage??

      • Kathy/Joe

        As I understand her position, Sarah is not necessarily arguing for celibacy (although she’s not opposed to it). Instead, she is arguing for a same-sex sexual ethic where the sexual desire is transformed by directing it in such a way that it’s put into the service of sacrificial giving to another. In that sense, she is suggesting that gay Christians in sexually active relationships are not merely to engage in sex for purposes of self-gratification, but need to develop a same-sex sexual ethic that makes sense within a Christ-centered committed relationship.

        By the same measure, she’s suggesting that celibacy must have the same self-giving motivation. It can’t just be construed in the negative, i.e., as avoiding doing something that you’re convicted is wrong.

        I’ve found Daniel Kirk’s recent writings on these topics to be helpful. He would probably admit freely that the sexual ethic that’s often celebrated within the gay male community has little place within a Christian relationship or Christian fellowship. Several gay friends I know have Grindr on their phones, even as they hope someday to find a Christian partner. In their view, downloading Grindr and uploading a few sexy pics of yourself is just part of what it means to be gay. I couldn’t disagree more.

        In recent months, I’ve moved in a Side A direction. But I keep visiting here because I feel like the relationship model that’s espoused here closely reflects what committed same-sex relationships ought to look like, even when sex is on the table. As Wes notes, Steven Holmes has written occasionally on these topics, but has written good stuff. I’d also recommend Robert Song’s book, “Covenant and Calling”.

      • Evan
        Thanks for the clarification and bringing back into focus Sarah Coakley’s book. I think you pinpointed the exact emphasis with which we can affirm both celibate and same sex relationships. For some time now I have held the view that compassion in pastoral care can mean supporting LGBT persons in the relationships they have chosen. As well, I think God’s grace is sufficient not only in our suffering but in the deeply complex and personal choices we make.

      • Hi Evan,

        The way you describe Kirk’s view of the sexual ethos within the gay community is very similar to things I’ve seen from Rusty Reno (e.g., gay people aren’t interested in the constraints of marriage, they’re interested in sexual liberation), Melinda Selmys (e.g., comparing same sex marriage to concubinage), and others.

        Certainly there is legitimacy in acknowledging the counter-cultural libertine values that accompanied the gay liberation movement. But one must, at the same time, acknowledge the identical libertine values that accompanied the women’s rights movement. Both movements were informed and enabled by the sexual revolution. [And heterosexual marriage was not untouched by the culture…lest we forget swinging couples.]

        And one must acknowledge that the world is a different place four decades later. It’s no more fair and accurate to suggest that gay culture is marked by promiscuity than it is to say the same of straight culture. If Grinder is a reflection of a monolithic gay identity, is Tinder a reflection of a monolithic straight identity? The gay community doesn’t have a monopoly on pushing the boundaries of sexual propriety.

        These hedonistic renderings of gay culture are unfair, anachronistic and inaccurate. In my experience in New York’s Hells Kitchen community, the prevailing culture values durable relationships and fidelity to one partner. In New York’s gay Christian community, we are absolutely affirming an ethic that views sex as the most intimate expression of relationship.

        I agree with you, the relationships imagined on this site model much of what constitutes healthy marital relationships (straight and gay). But I would argue that the sexual nature of the marital relationship (and the attendant expectation of sexual fidelity) makes it something different than a spiritual friendship. There’s an intimacy and vulnerability in sex that is a God-given gift which deepens and enriches the emotional bonds of the couple. And I also imagine that the way married gay couples serve the community is different than the way spiritual friends might – the difference grounded in the embrace of one mutual life as opposed to two mutually-encouraged lives.

      • Ford,

        I think you misinterpreted what I said about Kirk’s views. He recognizes that there are non-libertine same-sex couples. In fact, it’s in seeing God’s work through their relationships that has led him to the point where he believes that the church can affirm some committed non-celibate same-sex relationships.

        Even so, I suspect that he would oppose the church’s embracing the libertine narrative that one often sees celebrated within the gay male community.

        I agree that the Grindr culture doesn’t define the outer periphery of the gay community. There are a few metro areas that have a critical mass of professional gays who have succeeded in sustaining a cultural narrative that revolves more around commitment and fidelity than casual sex. That’s what I observed when I lived in DC. But I moved home to Chicago a few years ago, and that is definitely not the case here. What passes for gay culture here is generally pretty campy and tends to revolve around casual sex. So, I don’t think that the stereotypes you demur are nearly as anachronistic as you suggest. I know of no urban area in the Midwest where one could observe anything akin to what you describe in Hell’s Kitchen.

      • Evan/Ford,

        I agree that it is dangerous to characterize the gay community based upon the promiscuous subpopulation of that community (unfortunately, it is often the most publicized subpopulation of it). I also agree that b/c that subpopulation exists, it is not necessarily anachronistic to refer to that particular ethos. But at the same time, Evan, is it possible that your contrasting experiences in DC and in the Midwest are due to the gay people you have happened to find in those areas? For instance, I have a very good friend in Chicago who is married and committed to his partner, and he is surrounded by many like-minded gay/lesbian couples – he is aware of that sort of “critical mass” you speak of. Conversely, I grew up in the DC area, and while I can attest to the critical mass of professional/monogamous gays there (my husband and I were part of that ilk for several years before moving to New England), I was also highly aware of the huge population of casual sex gays as well. My experience has been that the multiplicity of “types” of LGBTQ people exist nearly everywhere in the US.

      • DJ,

        I appreciate the response. It’s also true that about 1/3 of my male colleagues were gay in DC. At my current job, my male colleagues are mostly straight middle-aged men. So, in DC, it was more natural to plug into the community of gay professionals.

    • I hear you DJ, maybe the answer is, in truth, Christ is doing His work of sanctifying and purifying our desires from the beginning of our conversion. But we don’t recognize it because the arguments against our legitimacy as full fledged Christians drown out the work Christ is doing in our lives. When we cast doubt and characterize affirming LGBT persons as misguided ‘liberals’ in opposition to us, we deny each other’s genuine experience of sanctification. It we step outside the debaters circle we can see that there is no liberal or conservative Christian. We are unified in Christ’s love.

  5. Thanks for pointing to Sarah’s book. I’ve read her previous works, and found them to be fairly helpful. I’ve also found Robert Song’s book, “Covenant and Calling” to be hit on some of the same points.

  6. Hey Wesley,

    did you ever write that review for Books & Culture? I’d be curious to read your thoughts once I finish up The New Asceticism. My initial thought as I’m digging in to the book is that its the sort of book that could make for a very thoughtful and engaging conversation in a small class / discussion group setting.

    -All the best

  7. Pingback: The Transformation of the Gentiles | Spiritual Friendship

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