One of the primary ways I’ve thought about my own life as a gay, celibate believer and also about my larger project of trying to make the church more of a nurturing haven for other gay/SSA/queer believers is in terms of what J. R. R. Tolkien called “the long defeat.” His regal character Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, surveying the long years of her immortality and all the seasons of mingled loss and triumph she’s witnessed, says, “Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” And Tolkien himself identifies with her: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
Alan Jacobs comments:
It seems to me that this philosophy of history, if we may call it that, is the ideal one for anyone who has exceptionally difficult, frustrating, even agonizing, but nevertheless vitally important work to do. For such people, the expectation of victory can be a terrible thing — it can raise hopes in (relatively) good times only to shatter them when the inevitable downturn comes. Conversely, the one who fights the long defeat can be all the more thankful for victories, even small ones, precisely because (as St. Augustine said about ecstatic religious experiences) he or she does not expect them and is prepared to live without them.
This perspective on history and on the individual Christian pilgrimage has meant a lot to me. As someone who hasn’t received one iota of the promised “change” in my sexual orientation that some Christians have held out to me, and as someone who also hasn’t been able to embrace a more progressive understanding of same-sex marriage, I’ve often felt like I’m fighting a kind of long defeat: I’m gay but not seeking a same-sex partner, and I’m still gay and so also not seeking an opposite-sex spouse, and what that feels like is… well, it often feels like the way St. Paul describes his rather stark view of the Christian life in Romans 8: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
I was helped to embrace this viewpoint in my early twenties when I read The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays. Facing squarely the much-debated question of whether celibacy is “mandated” for all gay Christians in a way that is qualitatively different than the call to chastity for straight Christians (“Never in church history until the past 50 years has celibacy been mandated for any group [such as LGBT people] regardless of calling,” says Matthew Vines, for instance), Hays writes:
While Paul regarded celibacy as a charisma, he did not therefore suppose that those lacking the charisma were free to indulge their sexual desires outside marriage. Heterosexually oriented persons are also called to abstinence from sex unless they marry (1 Cor 7:8-9). The only difference — admittedly a salient one — in the case of homosexually oriented persons is that they do not have the option of homosexual “marriage” [in traditional churches, we must now add]. So where does that leave them? It leaves them in precisely the same situation as the heterosexual who would like to marry but cannot find an appropriate partner (and there are many such): summoned to a difficult, costly obedience, while “groaning” for the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). Anyone who does not recognize this as a description of authentic Christian existence has never struggled seriously with the imperatives of the gospel, which challenge and frustrate our “natural” impulses in countless ways. (Italics added)
That passage in Hays’ book has been a lodestar for me over the past few years. And I think it goes a long way toward explaining the way I and many of my fellow celibate gay friends view our discipleship: we’re fighting a long defeat, not necessarily expecting to find a satisfying substitute in this life for the marital happiness we’re choosing to live without and instead pinning our hopes for spousal union on the future marriage Supper of the Lamb. We’re groaning and waiting, often without much natural “fulfillment,” and counting on a future weight of glory that will far surpass our present groans. As one gay friend of mine once wrote,
My hopes for making the Church a place where gay people can truly be welcome may be faint glimmerings that I dare not cling to, but that provides no excuse for dropping the project. It simply means that I must continue to fight the fight, while expecting the long defeat. My hope is not in this life, but in the life to come.
I’ve been thinking about all this again recently because I just finished reading The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day for the first time. Much of what Day — the legendary founder, with Peter Maurin, of the Catholic Worker movement and whose cause for sainthood is now being considered — is concerned to stress in her book, a memoir of her conversion and her activism for social justice, seems to me to dovetail with what Tolkien calls “the long defeat.” For example, she spends a lot of time describing how her conversion to Catholicism forced her to grapple with the implications of submitting to the Church’s teaching about sex and marriage. (She is very forthright about the Catholic Church’s sexual ethics in her book, demonstrating clearly that one can be “conservative” in this arena while at the same time not surrendering one ounce of agitation for social justice — a combination so many of us today find truly baffling.) Day was in a common law marriage to a man named Forster who wanted nothing to do with her newfound faith, and she recognizes that choosing the Church over Forster may well mean that she forfeits — for good — a great deal of earthly happiness. She writes:
God always gives us a chance to show our preference for Him. With Abraham it was to sacrifice his only son. With me it was to give up my married life with Forster. You do these things blindly, not because it is your natural inclination — you are going against nature when you do them — but because you wish to live in conformity with the will of God.
When I read that paragraph in the book, I found myself wondering how many of us today really share that vision of the Christian life. Are we — am I — prepared to countenance the fact that the Christian God may indeed be just this kind of God? — the kind of God who might ask me to say no to my most deeply felt “natural” (= in the fallen sense) inclinations for sex and marriage in order to show my preference for Him?
In another passage, Day describes having to “let go” of her natural love for her daughter and place her consciously in God’s care.
When I left Tamar that afternoon and went back to Montreal, I never was so unhappy, never felt so great a sense of loneliness. She was growing up, she was growing up to be married. It did not seem possible. I was always having to be parted from her. No matter how many times I gave up mother, father, husband, brother, daughter, for His sake, I had to do it over again.
Notice Day’s allusion to Mark chapter 10, in which Jesus observes how so many of His followers have given up exactly those closest ties that Day names: homes and siblings and parents and even children in order to become His disciples. Are we prepared to imagine that Christ might actually call us, still, to that deep level of surrender? That it might be best described as one long, repeated act of placing our greatest loves before Him?
Perhaps many of our debates about “mandatory gay celibacy” in the church involve, at the end of the day, differing understandings of the character of God: is God in Christ the sort of God who would ask His children to embrace a lifelong loneliness, a long defeat? I don’t want to be misunderstood here: I know many so-called “progressive” or “liberal” Christians whose picture of same-sex marriage is precisely about lifelong self-sacrifice, and there are many stories of gay partners standing by one another in sickness and in health alike to prove it. And yet can some of our disagreement about whether gay sex is morally appropriate for Christians still be traced back to differing beliefs about whether God might just be the kind of God who asks what feels well-nigh impossible: who asks us to give up the one thing that our “natural” selves most want, which seems for all the world like what we’re most suited for? It’s a question I’d like to explore with my progressive friends, to see what kind of common ground, and also what kind of lack of agreement, we might find…
It’s significant, I think, that Day closes her book — and here I think she probably improves on Tolkien’s vision of the “long defeat” — by stressing that when we surrender to God in this way, when we give up hope of “natural” fulfillment, we find (paradoxically?) that the long loneliness of the Christian life is not a life without human love: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” No doubt she had read the rest of chapter 10 in the Gospel of Mark:
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
The long defeat, and the long loneliness, are lived in good company, with other guests who are bound for the same Wedding Supper that’s to come.