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.