Celibacy: Tragedy or Deep Comedy?

I started the process of coming out as gay and celibate just over a year ago when I came out to one of my best friends. It was the last Saturday in Lent which, ironically, also happened to be April Fool’s Day. Tragedy and comedy mixed together as Lent with all of its tragic-like focus on sin, its darkness, its cross bearing is mingled with April Fools’ Day, there to make a joke of it all. I’ve thought a lot about that day over the past year and I’ve come to think that there is something theologically significant about these themes of celibacy, tragedy, and comedy. Is celibacy merely a tragic existence that is to be pitied? Or is it a deep comedy, to borrow Peter Leithart’s phrase, in which there is ultimately a happy ending? A happy ending that is not simply a restoration of something lost, but is a surprise that moves us beyond anything that we could ever have been imagined?[1]

A few days after I came out to my friend he sent to me a link to “Treaty,” a dark, haunting song by Leonard Cohen. In the email, he wrote: “Kevin, I’ve wanted to show you this song for several months, but I’ve been afraid to. It seems so fitting for you, and for me. Now, it feels even more fitting than before.”

I have to confess, I loved the song (and still do). After he shared it with me I listened to it over and over and over again. The prospect of coming out had left me gutted, feeling empty. I binged on the song, letting it poke and prod my already festering wound, wanting to feel something, anything. I listened to it at night, alone in a dark house. I listened to it for what I am sure was more than half of the five hour drive to visit my friend the following weekend.

I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

As much as I loved the song and as much as it resonated with how I often feel about my life with God, I was troubled by it, too. Yes, my life with God has often been this sort of deep wrestling in the dark of night, mostly centered around my sexuality and call to celibacy. Yes, I have often felt trapped by God, as if God was my enemy. At times I have wished that there was a treaty I could sign between God’s love and mine so that I could cut my losses and walk away. But this is not the gospel. The beauty of Leonard Cohen’s “Treaty” is that it names the depth of the tragedy. It is honest in that way, as in honest-to-the-human-experience. But the problem of Cohen’s song is that ultimately there is no comedic ending, no surprise that moves us beyond anything we could have imagined. There is only resignation. The gospel is not a tragedy. It is not, ultimately, a sad and dark and tragic story in which we are fatalistically resigned to suffering and death. Instead, the gospel is finally a deep comedy.

When I tell others that I am called to a life of celibacy the most common responses I receive are those of pity and sorrow. No one has said, “Congratulations, we are so happy for you!” No one has shrieked in joy, thrown their arms around me in a giant hug, or secretly planned a party to celebrate my permanent bachelorhood. I haven’t gotten gifts of blenders and spatulas, bath towels and bed sheets. In the popular imagination, Christian and non-Christian alike, celibacy is thought to be a tragic life-sentence to loneliness and despair, not something to celebrate. I confess, I am often tempted to think of my celibacy—and the whole of the Christian life, for that matter—in this way, too. To see the story of God’s people primarily as a story of creation gone bad, of sin and its sorrowful destruction, of a fallen world that is not as it should be; as a story of sometimes purposeful, other times meaningless, suffering and cross-bearing.

But what if celibacy can actually point to a more comedic vision of the Christian life? What if celibacy points us to the deep comedy of the gospel? The ancient world was a world much like ours, where every culture had its fertility cults—including Israel adopting those of the nations around it. Barrenness was seen as a sign of the judgment of God and childlessness was a reason for permissible divorce or the taking of a second wife. In this world most eunuchs, not by any choice of their own, had their life of celibacy chosen for them involuntarily. Eunuchs were sexual minorities, standing outside of the sex, child-rearing, and carry-on-the-family-name economy that was at the center of Israel’s life and that of its ancient neighbors. “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1 NRSV).

But to our surprise there is a stunning reversal of fortunes for the eunuch. What looks like a tragedy at first becomes, by the grace of God, a deep comedy. It as if God pulled a giant April Fools’ joke in which those thought to be among the most pitied suddenly have the last laugh. In the vision given to the prophet Isaiah of the Great Day that is to come, eunuchs are no longer excluded but included in the great assembly streaming to the Mountain of the Lord. And more than included, they are given an unexpected promise. “[D]o not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:3b-5).

Eunuchs, tragically cut-off from their family and denied a family of their own, are given a place in the family of God. And more than given a place to belong, they are given the promise that they will have a name “better than sons and daughters . . . an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” More than simple restoration of what was originally lost, they are given a promise beyond anything they could have gained in this life. It is as if all the suffering and cross-bearing entailed by a life without sex, without family, is suddenly met with unsuspected, surprising joy. Whatever may have been given up, or taken from them—family, children, sex—they get a promise from God that they will gain something far greater in the consummation of all things.

I can’t help but think that Jesus had this promise from Isaiah on his mind in Matthew 19 when he responds to Peter’s question, “‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’” Jesus had just talked about marriage and eunuchs and the cost of following him. He answers Peter, “‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’” (Matthew 19:27-28)

Far from being a tragic life that must be pitied, Scripture gives a far different view of the life of the sexual minority committed to celibacy. In Christ this family-forsaking form of cross-bearing becomes a deep comedy. Certainly we should not diminish that a life of celibacy has tragic elements of darkness, of struggle, of suffering. But the celibate life is not ultimately defined by tragedy, by what is given up, by what is lost. It will be defined by what is gained in the promise of God. Outside of the narrative arc of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, celibacy—and the Christian life—would indeed would be a tragedy. Without the cross and the resurrection, to be denied the love of a spouse, the experience of sexual union, and the blessing of children would be something to be pitied for sure. In such a world Cohen’s plea for a treaty to sign would be our only hope. Without Jesus any form of cross-bearing and self-denial would be tragic. But the funny thing is that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). Or as the psalmist writes, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” (Psalm 126:5). In a culture that bows in worship to the idols of sex and family, celibacy serves as a deep comedy. It is God’s giant April Fools’ joke that exposes those idols to the surprising promise of God that gives those committed to celibacy the last laugh of eternal joy.

Kevin Slusher is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America and is currently serving as pastor of the Reformed Church of Port Ewen in Port Ewen, NY. Born and raised in Michigan, Kevin is a graduate of Hope College (Holland, Michigan) and Western Theological Seminary (Holland, Michigan). He blogs at Thou Art Lighting And Love and can be followed on Twitter: @kevinslusher.

[1] Peter Leithart, Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2006), xii. Leithart suggests that the gospel is a deep comedy. He argues that the classical world was held captive to a tragic understanding of history in which a “glorious beginning” slides ever more toward a tragic ending. In contrast, “the Christian account of history is eschatological not only in the sense that it comes to a definitive and everlasting end, but in the sense that the end is a glorified beginning, not merely a return to origins. The Christian Bible moves not from garden lost to garden restored, but from garden to garden-city. . . . To say the same in other words, though the Bible gives full recognition to sin and its effects on creation and humanity, the Christian account of history is ultimately comic” (xi).

9 thoughts on “Celibacy: Tragedy or Deep Comedy?

  1. Kevin, I always knew you to be a highly intelligent classmate, but had no idea of your immense skill in writing–crafting a message, a teaching, a reflection in terms the less-learned can follow, but with a depth and significance not often found in any writings–let alone such a sensitive topic. I imagine if I were more in touch with my emotions, I would have both laughed and cried reading this. It is beautiful, thought provoking…wonderful. Thank you for providing a voice that has been absent in my thinking on these topics. Also, next time I see you I will try to ‘shriek in joy’ for your edification 😉

    • Thank you, Dan! As always, you are way too kind. I look forward to that “shriek of joy” when I see you next!

  2. I celebrate you! Thank you (and this blog) for this content.
    As you write: ‘Is celibacy merely a tragic existence that is to be pitied? Or is it a deep comedy, to borrow Peter Leithart’s phrase, in which there is ultimately a happy ending? A happy ending that is not simply a restoration of something lost, but is a surprise that moves us beyond anything that we could ever have been imagined?[1]’
    I’ve lingered on the thought of that surprise we’re promised. God’s a keeper of promises, no? And the waiting is not wasted time, even if it’s tough, it’s doesn’t mean He isn’t working in ways we never imagined! It’s as though He’s asked me at times, ‘Do you trust Me, dear daughter? Do I not keep my promises? Wait for me. Wait and see. Love me.’ In a circumstance where it really did feel like a loss of connection, potentially for ever, because of the choice to honor His ways–even basic relational loss because the other person could not understand my decision outside of rejection (from different world view)– it hurt deeply to walk away in the midst of clinging to a promise He has, for both myself… and them! Some days it feels like, ‘Will it ever come?’ But I’ve also had the heavy conviction that to give up on it for the short term, is to ‘sell my birthright for food like Esau’* and miss out on the good He desires to pour into me and the world through the living out of his will. (the Esau reference was introduced to me recently in a talk by speaker Todd White). It’s hard to be in the world and not if it and still believe in my emotions, mind, and will that He loves me and is calling me into love and fullness of life in going in a different direction than the popular grain.
    I’ve viewed sexual orientation as a spectrum. That said, on the either-or, I’d be categorized as ‘straight’. I still find your post encouraging. I don’t hear the Church taking the call to singleness or chastity or celibacy as an honorable calling for which God has things in store, as is communicated in Bible itself. A path that can also be celebrated, supported (because it’s hard in its own way, like marriage in its own way)! A path that we can look at with anticipation of ‘What does He have for us?’ ‘What does He seek to do with us and through us?’ ‘How will I continue to grow to know Him on this path?’ And be excited to discover, with others in the same boat and with the support of others in different boats!
    Thank you again for your piece. It’s encouraging.

  3. Pingback: Celibacy: Tragedy or Deep Comedy? – Thou Art Lightning and Love

  4. Thanks for engaging this topic Kevin. Knowing that this positive thing will happen after death though doesn’t really touch the heartbreak and constant sadness I feel about it.

    • Steven, thank you for comments. I appreciate your honesty. A friend of mine challenged me, I think along similar lines, about the differences of Jesus’ words in Mark 10 and Luke 18 when compared to Matthew 19. I was not trying to argue for a form of escapism, in which we ignore the real costs of following Jesus in this life. I think there is something to say about the promises of God coming to fruition in this life. That the call of God is not just to suffering and death, but to life and that life is not just the life to come, but life and joy in the present. We are not only baptized into Jesus’ death, but also to share in his resurrection life. And yet any inbreaking of this resurrection life we experience is a qualified inbreaking, only a shadow of what is yet to come.

      In my article I tried to give voice to the real pain (and suffering) that can be a part of the life of those who are single and celibate and at the same time speak to the coming promise of God. If by saying that God’s eschatological promise doesn’t “touch” your heartbreak and sadness you were trying to say that it doesn’t cancel out the real pain and suffering of your lived experience, I wholeheartedly agree. I don’t think the eschatological promise of God necessarily cancels out the pain and cost of discipleship. But I do think it orients, or re-orients, us toward Christian hope instead of despair. Christian hope is not a pie-in-the-sky escapism, it’s not a shallow and false joy. It is hope that holds out for the coming light of dawn even in the darkest of nights. It is the hope given to us in Christ that looks death in the face and says, “even yet…”. What I was trying to say is that apart from the promise of God, the pain and suffering that the Christian might experience would be a tragedy because it would be the end of the story. All we would be left with is despair. The hope we have in the eschatological promise of God doesn’t take away the cross-bearing demands of the gospel, but it does invite us and call us to a posture of hope, a posture that awaits the surprise ending that comes against all odds. Another way to say it is that any form of self-denial and cross-bearing would be *ultimately* meaningless apart from the promise of God. Again, it doesn’t make it any less costly, but it does change the narrative by which I am able to interpret (make sense of) my experience.

      • I don’t think the eschatological promise of God necessarily cancels out the pain and cost of discipleship. But I do think it orients, or re-orients, us toward Christian hope instead of despair. Christian hope is not a pie-in-the-sky escapism, it’s not a shallow and false joy. It is hope that holds out for the coming light of dawn even in the darkest of nights. It is the hope given to us in Christ that looks death in the face and says, “even yet…”

        Beautifully stated. The seasons of life when the cost of discipleship seems too high and I’m unable to hold as strongly to eschatological hope are trying indeed. And then there are those seasons in life when the hope God has given me feels so immense and I know he’s allowed me a glimpse of the reality of his eschaton. The presence of profound pain in this life mustn’t be denied, and yet in the hope-filled intervals I know I have a truer sense of the promises that are ours in Christ.

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