One of the paralyzing fears and deep dreads for a gay man pursuing celibacy is falling in love with his male best friend. It is a phenomenon that is often spoken about implicitly in gay Christian circles, it’s often given the quick theological answer of suffering for the sake of the Kingdom, and it’s one that is shared across the theological spectrum.
Matthew Vines, in a lecture on the Bible and homosexuality, remarked,
Falling in love is one of the worst things that could happen to a gay person because you will necessarily be heartbroken. You will have to run away, and that will happen every single time that you come to care about someone else too much.
And Wes Hill, after confiding in his pastor about his heart break over his best friend, writes
I didn’t want to say that was right [that I had been in love with him], because if I did, then wouldn’t that mean I would have to give up the relationship? If I admitted, “Yes, I’ve been in love with him all this time, even though I’ve tried to hide that fact, even – or especially – from myself,” then didn’t that mean I was also admitting that the friendship was all wrong? That it had to end?
For Side-A gay Christians, it is often this reason (coupled with several others) that they find celibacy unlivable choosing then to pursue deep relationality in romantic same-sex relationships. For Side-B gay Christians, they identify this as part of God’s call to bear one’s cross and deny one’s flesh, and they look to the resurrection of the body as that time when they will finally be able to connect interpersonally like their heterosexual peers. Until then, they remain in this state of brokenness and distress.
What a terrible choice to choose between a moral violation against one’s deeply-held convictions or a life of deeply searing pain and isolation. Yet thankfully this is mostly a false dilemma.
Western Evangelicalism has been plagued by a poor view of human personhood and often functions within a context where humans are reduced to biological impulses and thus the mere experience of sexual arousal is met with moral condemnation . When we start with a poor view of personhood, we can end up theologically advocating for false doctrine that harms rather than heals or binds rather than frees. By re-discovering the way that Christians have viewed human personhood and human connection, gay Christians can reframe some of these issues and can begin to imagine a better way forward that includes deep, permanent, secure relationships that are simultaneously committed to chastity in the best sense of the word.
Let’s begin by outlining a positive view of human personhood.
Christian Smith, a Roman Catholic sociologist, defines the human person as follows:
[A person is] a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who – as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions – exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.
What we glean from this more complex definition is that human personhood is itself complex. We cannot engage in a reductionistic view of human personhood. The human person is not nothing but a biologically determined reality; the human person is not nothing but a soul trapped in a body; the human person is not nothing but a sexually driven animal, and the human person is not nothing but an evil and wicked creature covered by God’s purity (as in a warped version of simul justus et peccator). We are embodied selves who exist in cultural contexts that form us and develop us. We do have biological needs, and yet we also have psychological, sociological, and spiritual needs. Because we’re influenced by these multiple levels of reality, our motivations aren’t reducible down to a single external cause.
We do, however, understand our motivations as arising from our lived experience and based on how we understand our interactions with the world. Thus, when humans engage in any behavior, it’s driven by the desire to maintain their sense of self in interaction to the surrounding world. This ‘self’ is not a Cartesian isolated mind as if the self is purely rational and contained within the body. Rather, it is best understood from a phenomenological contextualist perspective as a person’s world of experience – a self embedded in multi-leveled reality where his or her interactions with reality are saturated with personal meaning. This self then forms organizing principles about how one understands him or herself in relation to the world. These organizing principles can either more or less conform to a transcendent reality offering goods of varying degrees and using affect to signal that experiential fulfilment. This is all to say that we are primarily motivated to understand ourselves in our world and work with the world to meet our needs.
For example, a man who frequently uses pornography does so not because he is a sexual beast carrying out his primitive urges or because he is a wicked sinner desiring evil but rather he uses pornography because it provides him with goods according to his organizing principle which reinforces his sense of self. Through his fantasy life and by his own control, he can achieve goods: he can assert his masculinity, his sexual identity, his power, his desirability, etc. through his identification and interaction with these ideal images of men and/or women. Christian maturity and sanctification dictate that he must grow to meet these goods in ways that conform better with reality (ways that do not degrade the personhood of those around him as pornography does) yet it does so by still fundamentally recognizing that that these are goods his self needs for his own flourishing.
This belief about human personhood is reflected well in historic Christian orthodoxy. Because God is the ground of being and goodness, evil then is not a substance equal to God but rather a privation of the good. Human beings, therefore, never attempt to achieve evil but rather, when attempting for the good sometimes engage in behavior that limits that good. This is best demonstrated by St. Augustine when he writes, “Man obviously wills to be happy, even when he is not living in a way that makes it possible for him to attain happiness.” St. Thomas Aquinas writes that “in things, each one has so much good as it has being: since good and being are convertible.” Humans are motivated by the pursuit of the ultimate good and must conform to reality in order to achieve that good.
For example, I may desire to be a famous actor or a wealthy business owner. I may want to be in the limelight and be important, or I may want to have a lot of money and a big house. A temptation might be to critique my desire as vanity, as evil. What I want is bad, therefore, my desire is bad. However, there exists within my desire for fame and wealth a desire for security, safety, and value. It’s not wrong to want to be loved or to feel like I belong. What is wrong is if I engage in behavior that devalues my own humanity or the humanity of others to achieve this desire of my heart because it limits the good.
Finally, we understand human persons as inherently relational. We understand who we are through our interactions with others. We are not isolated minds bumping up against one another but actually form our personalities through our intersubjective interactions with other persons. As H.S. Sullivan once wrote, “Personality is made manifest in interpersonal situations, and not otherwise.” Because we are motivated to make meaning of ourselves and our surroundings and because we create that meaning interpersonally, we cannot help but attach to those around us. We seek those relationships where others can help us feel understood, loved, and accepted.
Keeping this understanding of personhood as our starting point, let’s examine the role and function of sexuality.
Most people hold to a Freudian understanding of sexuality. They assume that sexual arousal is a mechanistic, biological response that functions much the same way that appetite does. Just like hunger tells us to satisfy our body’s need for food, sexual arousal tells us to satisfy our body’s need for sexual pleasure. While sublimation, the movement of sexual energy to something more socially acceptable, could work for people, it was not advised long term and most were encouraged to seek after their biological sexual needs or risk developing neuroses as was prescribed by Sigmund Freud and his later prominent followers Alfred Kinsey and Wilhelm Reich.
This fundamentally views human persons as biologically determined and not the relational, interpersonal selves that we’ve now understood them to be. This also views human persons as having isolated minds interacting with objects within the environment, rather than motivated to connect interpersonally.
Sexual arousal is not a mechanistic, purely biological response but is rather motivated primarily by an interpersonal intentionality. We are sexually aroused by a person, not an object. It is our desire to be desired by this ideal person that causes our affective response. Our sexual desire points to a desire to connect with this person in an embodied way and to be loved by them. The telic end of sexual desire, then, is not orgasm or sexual pleasure but rather interpersonal connection.
This means that should it be unethical for me to engage in sexual behavior with someone who arouses me (e.g. I am not in a marital relationship with this person, the sexual act will not be open to procreation, or his or her embodiment prevents ordered sexual activity) then I either do not connect interpersonally with this person or connect interpersonally in chaste ways. This is the core tenet behind chastity and ordering one’s sexual desire.
Contextually, for the gay man, if he experiences the occasional sexual arousal toward his best friend, it is not the end of the relationship. In fact, it points to the deeper reality that he truly loves his friend. It is not a sinful, shameful stain that ruins the relationship. It is the normal functioning of two people who grow close together in intimacy, and because sexual arousal points to loving intimacy, it can simply be ordered to the life and vitality of the close friendship. His affect will eventually order within the relationship as he lives in the embodied reality with his friend.
Now, many of you might recognize the logic of what I have said and may agree with my conclusions, but you still feel the deep pain of this predicament. It reads so simple but your experience is not like this. Many of you still wrestle with the deep dread of falling in love with your best friend, the stomach-churning fear of loving someone more than he will love you, and the terror of being tossed to the curb and abandoned at the first sign of trouble and hardship. To these emotional responses, sure, having a theoretical framework explain your experience may be helpful, but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
In my second and third posts, I hope to answer some of these lingering fears. After having firmly establishing the personhood ground rules to frame this conversation, I will dive deeper into relationships drawing upon the best in adult attachment literature to provide more practical solutions for gay Christians navigating this anxious terrain.