In the weeks following the Revoice Conference, quite a number of critical responses have focused on “identity.” The primary objection seems to be that we make being LGB into an “identity,” which isn’t a biblical way to talk. As I’ve written before, it’s not clear what our critics mean by “identity.” What exactly is the objection? Oftentimes, it just seems to be using words or phrases like “gay” or “sexual minority” in reference to ourselves; the same objections do not usually arise regarding those who use “same-sex attracted” instead.
This has always struck me as an odd way to argue, and I have wondered why ideas around “identity” and “ontology” are so frequently central to criticism of Revoice and Spiritual Friendship. I do think there are legitimate concerns surrounding identity, and in particular how we are to view ourselves as Christians. And those of us who contribute to Spiritual Friendship are fallible humans who may get these questions wrong at times. But I’ve found that at least in some cases, there is more going on than the “iron sharpens iron” discussion I would hope we can have.
On Spiritual Friendship, we have previously discussed the distinction between ontology (who someone is) and phenomenology (what someone experiences). Critics have insisted that we make everything about ontology. It has dawned on me that actually, what they are often doing is refusing to discuss phenomenology. Phenomenology brings up a lot of uncomfortable and difficult questions they seem to have no real interest in addressing.
The experience of finding oneself attracted to the same sex is phenomenological. It is a phenomenological observation that attraction is usually discovered rather than chosen. (To their credit, many critics such as Rosaria Butterfield do acknowledge that some people experience “unchosen homosexual desire.”) The fact that people who find themselves attracted to the same sex often continue to have the experience long after conversion to Christianity is another phenomenological reality. The common tendency to have a corresponding lack of romantic and sexual attraction to the opposite sex is phenomenological. Similarly, the observation that no method for changing sexual attraction has ever been shown to be reliable (despite numerous attempts to find such a method) is a phenomenological one.
These phenomenological realities provide the backdrop for Revoice, and are also realities we have been trying to deal with at Spiritual Friendship since the blog was founded.
Johanna Finegan noted in her excellent Revoice preconference talk one way that “identity” has been used to obscure a phenomenological reality. She spoke of how when it became apparent that sexual orientation generally wasn’t changing as a result of ex-gay approaches, leaders started focusing on “identity” so it could sound like they were achieving something significant.
I’ve found this sort of evasion is a larger theme among some of our critics who focus most on questions of “identity” or “ontology.”
For example, Rosaria Butterfield has not to my knowledge spoken recently about whether or not she continues to experience sexual temptation towards other women. People talk about her as a “former lesbian,” and as long as everything is defined in terms of “identity,” she can get away with saying that. But this allows equivocation, where people get the idea that if Rosaria Butterfield can stop being a lesbian, so can the celibate lesbian in front of you. Perhaps the difference is only as deep as what words the person is using, rather than anything more significant. Without further clarification from Butterfield, we’ll never know.
Similarly, it allows Butterfield to ignore differences between her experience of sexual temptation and that of others. In Johanna Finegan’s talk, she talks of realizing she was “gay” quite early in life. Many of us have had similar experiences. In Butterfield’s book, she talks about having had heterosexual relationships in her teens and undergraduate years, and pursued romantic and sexual relationships with women only after becoming disillusioned with relationships with men and becoming steeped in feminist theory.
But Butterfield seems to be allergic to discussing what the practical outworking of these different experiences might be. She classifies these as questions of “identity,” which she categorically refuses to consider. Instead, she wants to discuss only generic biblical theology, with explicit suspicion of even considering ideas that come from sources such as psychology. Discussion of a pattern of attraction wasn’t discussed much before Freud, so Butterfield acts as though only a Freudian framework would allow us to talk about it, even as she makes vague statements about how a faithful Christian who experiences “unwanted homosexual desire” can be one with Christ through “repentance.”
Even something like “repentance” can be obscured by an inability to see issues of phenomenology. Consider this point from Johanna Finegan’s talk: “I think how you would resist a temptation is pretty much exactly the same as how you would resist if it was actually a sin. You don’t feed it in your mind, you don’t do what it says, you try to turn the other way and do the opposite.”
How does this actually differ from the “repentance” that critics such as Butterfield want? Is the issue just that they think it’s sinful to use certain English words in reference to ourselves, so they think we need to repent of that? Are they thinking that if we just stopped describing ourselves as “lesbian” or “gay” or “bisexual,” we’d stop experiencing the feelings we’re feeling? That would be a phenomenological assertion (not just an ontological one). A refusal to talk about the phenomenology of sexual orientation leaves us without clear answers to these questions.
Phenomenological issues are critical because they are of immediate practical importance. For example, if I find myself attracted to a male friend in a way that involves some level of temptation, there are real questions I have to deal with. What kind of friendship is appropriate? How do I deal with the unasked-for feelings that remain? Simply saying that my true identity is in Christ rather than my sexuality does not actually answer these questions.
I find it noteworthy that when Ron Belgau directly asked this sort of question to Denny Burk, he never got a response. Instead, Denny later just complained about us as the “celibate gay identity movement,” having completely ignored the question for weeks. He may claim that he is interested in helping those who experience same-sex attraction, but instead he shows his true colors as someone who is more concerned with sticking to a particular limited framework that allows him to ignore important questions.
I have to admit, I’m finding it increasingly unlikely that we’ll have productive discussion with some of these critics. We have repeatedly attempted to address concerns around labels, for example. On the other hand, as I’ve just discussed, these critics have persistently failed to address the phenomenological concerns we’ve raised. We would love to discuss concerns about our approach with those who are willing to represent our beliefs honestly and address the phenomenological realities we are dealing with. However, I hope that those who are considering these recent criticisms can see the failure of our most vocal critics to do so. They seem to have no real answers for those they claim to care about and want to help. And while we don’t claim to have all the answers, I believe we’ve at least been asking the right questions. Let’s think through how to pursue answers that are faithful to God’s plan as laid out in Scripture, rather than ignoring the questions in order to focus only on “identity.”