As Lent moves rapidly towards its close, I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to make space in my life for some more meditative reading, and right now I’m inching through Frances Young’s God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity. It’s a remarkably unclassifiable book, as Young weaves her work in Patristics (the study of the church Fathers) together with personal, pastoral reflections, largely revolving around her disabled son Arthur. Today this passage struck me in an especially forceful way:
Arthur’s limited experience, limited above all in ability to process the world external to himself, is a crucial element in who he is, in his real personhood. An ultimate destiny in which he was suddenly ‘perfected’ (whatever that might mean) is inconceivable—for he would no longer be Arthur but some other person. His limited embodied self is what exists, and what will be must be in continuity with that. There will also be discontinuities—the promise of resurrection is the transcendence of our mortal ‘flesh and blood’ state. So there’s hope for transformation of this life’s limitations and vulnerabilities, of someone like Arthur receiving greater gifts while truly remaining himself. Perhaps the transformation to be hoped for is less intellectual or physical advance and more the kind of thing anticipated in the present when the fruits of the Spirit are realized in relationships.
Not only am I intrinsically interested in what Young says here—in disability and resurrection theology—but I also can’t help but be struck by how this relates to my situation as a gay, celibate Christian believer. As readers of this blog know, I (and others) sometimes reach for the metaphor of disability as way of thinking about our sexual orientations. In my book Washed and Waiting I used the metaphor of “healing” to describe how I thought my sexuality would be transformed when Christ returns. In my chapter on Nouwen, I wrote, “I expect to stand with Henri Nouwen at the resurrection and marvel that neither of us is homosexual anymore.”
But as time goes on, I feel less sure that that’s quite the right way to put it. Certainly those behavioral aspects of my gay experience that are sinful—lust, for example, and pride—won’t be true of me at all in the kingdom of God. I don’t believe that I will desire sexual intimacy with men in heaven because I believe that that attraction is a result of the fall. And just as certainly, I know I won’t be cordoned off from all the rest of the redeemed by any political identity label. I feel confident that “gay” won’t be a descriptor I’ll want to hold onto (nor, presumably, will it be around much longer in this life, well before the End arrives). And yet, as I’ve said many times here at SF, “being gay” feels much bigger and multilayered and richer than an attraction to bodies, than the sin of lust or the proclivity to identify with an in-group. It is a sensibility—that’s the word I keep landing on—and one that somehow seems to pervade my personality, shaping the friendships I form, inclining me to certain kinds of reading, drawing me to specific types of conversations and hobbies and artistic pursuits. Maybe I’m too much a child of my age, letting Freud affect my thinking about the all-pervasiveness of sexuality more than I should, but I still like the way I put it in my Spiritual Friendship book:
In my experience, at least, being gay colors everything about me, even though I’m celibate. It’s less a separable piece of my experience, like a shelf in my office, distinguishable from the other shelves, and more like the proverbial drop of ink in a glass of water: not identical with the water, but also not entirely distinct from it either.
But if that’s true, and if it’s also true that Christ’s return means I’m to be “healed” of my homosexuality, then will my entire personality undergo a complete overhaul? To go back to Young’s language above, if I’m to be “perfected”—meaning, if I won’t be gay anymore—well, I can’t imagine that that wouldn’t make me into someone who is almost completely different than the person I am now, and that thought isn’t exactly a hopeful one.
Young is right, I think, to stress the discontinuity between our present experience and the resurrection state. I will almost certainly go wrong if I try to imagine too concretely what it will mean to exist with Christ as a resurrected person. I’m mindful here of C. S. Lewis’ famous caution about the dangers of trying to imagine the time Jesus predicts when marriage (and presumably also sexual relations, certainly in their current form) will be no more (Matthew 22:30):
I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No’, he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.
And yet I feel too that Young must be right to look for some kind of continuity between her Arthur’s disabled life now and his resurrection life in God’s future, and I think I am right too to look for, to hope for, some sort of connection between the depth and intensity with which I’ve been able to love my male friends now and the way I will love and live in the kingdom of God.
Recently I was emailing about some of this with a theologian friend of mine, and he said this in reply:
[O]ur eschatological healing will not erase the things that have defined us in this life, but will gloriously transform them. So—to pick a couple of the classic loci of identity politics—our various ethnic/national identities will somehow survive and add to the richness of the worship in the Kingdom (I think I have some Biblical support here) and our disabilities will not simply be done away with, as if they were never there, but will be transformed in our healing so that an aspect of the glory we display will be as people who were once disabled. Obviously, it isn’t hard to fit sexuality somewhere in there (much nearer ethnicity than disability, in my estimation)…. [I]n the Kingdom I will be straight, and you and Aelred will be gay, [but] these identifiers will no longer name desires but will instead name facets of the glory of God’s grace that will shine forth from our sanctified lives.
Surely something like that is true. I want to believe that the way God is shaping my celibate, same-sex-friendship desiring life now will bear some resemblance, however gloriously discontinuous it may be, to the life God gives me when “all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). In some way, my disability—if that’s the right metaphor for it—will be glorified.