What “Not Reducible” Means

Yesterday, Wesley Hill started a helpful discussion about the way that different people use words like “gay” to mean different things. One reply, given by Denny Burk, is a common one I’ve heard many times before. The basic idea is that talking about a “gay” (or, in my case, “bisexual”) orientation is by definition referring to something sexual, and desires for things like friendship are desires I share with straight people and shouldn’t be lumped together in the same category.

The practical problem I have with this way of thinking is that I can’t always separate my feelings neatly into these two categories of desire. They often seem to arise from the same phenomenon. I think this experience is something I share with many others, and why we talk about how our orientation is “not reducible” to lust or a desire to have sex. This manner of speaking seems kind of fuzzy, but I think this is so precisely because the underlying phenomenon is hard to categorize.

In order to partially get across what I’m talking about with my “orientation,” why that is “not reducible” to wanting to have sex, and why I can’t separate everything out as nicely as people (including myself!) might like, I think it would be most helpful to talk about my experience. Of course, I can’t speak universally for everyone, and others may have different experiences.

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The Fruit of Traditional Teaching

Photo by MarkusHagenlocher via Wikimedia CommonsOne of the most common ways to argue against the traditional sexual ethic is to cite all the negative consequences that are said to flow directly from it. For example, people point to the high rates of depression and suicide among sexual minorities who grow up within conservative religious communities, and they also remind us that even those who don’t face the most severe mental health consequences still often deal with isolation, fear, shame, and stigma.

The basic argument is this: if we are to judge teachings by their fruit, then we can judge the traditional view of sexual ethics as wrong and immoral.

A common knee-jerk reaction I see from some conservatives is a denial of the problems. I’ve heard several people argue that these claims are just smokescreens for people who want to justify immoral behavior.

I don’t know if I can put this strongly enough: the problems cited are very real, and to deny their existence is to be extraordinarily calloused and unloving. I’ve even experienced some of them, like the fear and shame, myself. And I’ve heard enough stories to know that even the more serious ones like suicidal ideation are shockingly common.

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Sexual Orientation Discrimination on Campus?

Update October 7, 2016: This post was written in 2014 to address a controversy then facing InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. It has become relevant again in light of a new controversy regarding their standards for staff members. I agree that there are some legitimate questions about how InterVarsity decides which areas of doctrine require a policy, given their generally “big tent” approach to a range of issues. However, I am glad to see them defend sound doctrine, and I am frustrated by unfair claims that this is inherently about discriminating against LGBTQ people. The question is how InterVarsity will move forward in loving LGBTQ students and staff. Some developments in the last few years have continued to give me hope that they can learn to do this well.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia 8 by David Shankbone

Earlier this month, the California State University system decided to stop recognizing InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as a campus organization. This was far from being the first time that a campus ministry has faced such a challenge. Perhaps most famously, several years ago Hastings College of the Law withdrew recognition from the Christian Legal Society, resulting in a 2010 Supreme Court decision (Christian Legal Society v. Martinez) in favor of Hastings. InterVarsity itself has previously faced a number of challenges at a number of institutions such as Vanderbilt, SUNY Buffalo, and others.

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The Line Dividing Ordered and Disordered

As I discussed in my last post, there are fine distinctions to be made between what is ordered and disordered, beyond simply what is sinful. In other words, in a fallen world, some things are not as God originally intended. Here I want to further discuss one important point.

Aleksandr SolzhenitsynAleksander Solzhenitsyn has a famous quote that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” In a similar manner, the line dividing ordered and disordered cuts through the sexuality of every human being.

This applies to straight people just as much as it applies to sexual minorities. As I mentioned in the last post, I tend to see sexual attraction that a married person feels toward those other than his or her spouse as disordered. However, even for those who do not share that view, disorder is readily apparent from any traditional Christian perspective.

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A Three-Tiered Framework for Thinking About Sexuality

At Spiritual Friendship and in other venues, we often discuss questions of “disorder” and “sin” relating to sexuality (for a few examples, see here, here, here, here, and here). Others have written about similar topics, such as Denny Burk’s exploration of whether same-sex attraction is sinful.

In all these writings, I see several different categorizations that are in play. I think it is helpful, for the purposes of discussion, to explicitly consider three ways to categorize aspects of sexuality: not disordered, disordered but not sinful, and sinful. Not everyone will agree with me on which aspects of sexuality fit into which category, but I think that explicitly considering these categories is a helpful framework for discussion. I will give a brief description of each, as well as some of my current understanding of what fits in each category and how others disagree with me.

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What I Learned From My Ex-Gay Days Part 2: Reflections

In my previous piece, I described my experience trying to change my orientation. As promised, in this post I will discuss some practical insights, many of which extend beyond the ex-gay context in which I learned them.

The most immediate insight is directly about sexual orientation change efforts: change in orientation is not something we should promise. Hope in orientation change can be false hope. This is true even for someone who is willing to put great effort into trying to become straight and, more importantly, dealing with the sorts of issues often claimed to be behind a homosexual or bisexual orientation. It is important that we be honest.

Putting my hope into orientation change had less fallout for me than it had for many others. As a man who was already attracted to women, changing my orientation was never quite about being able to function in a marriage. Remaining attracted to the same sex did not have any particular implication about celibacy; it merely meant that I could not be as normal as I wanted and that I would face negative attitudes from some conservative Christians. I was able to come to an acceptance of this reality. However, other people do experience significant hurt. As I alluded to in the first part, even parents may be unnecessarily hurt when they take the blame for their children’s orientation.

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What I Learned from my Ex-Gay Days Part 1: My Experience

Like several other bloggers on Spiritual Friendship, I had a period of my life when I was actively trying to change my sexual orientation. Although my perspective has shifted dramatically since then, I learned some important lessons through my experiences. In order to reflect on those lessons, I am posting a two-part series. In this piece, I will discuss my experiences with ex-gay approaches. In a follow-up piece, I will discuss some practical insights, many of which are broader than the ex-gay context in which I first learned them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I discovered the ex-gay movement during my later teenage years, and I initially understood references to being “formerly gay” or having “overcome homosexuality” as becoming completely straight.

Much of the ex-gay literature comes from a particular perspective about how same-sex feelings arise. I never really bought the most common claim, which was that my attractions arose from a defect in my relationship with my father. I knew that, while not absolutely perfect, my relationship with my dad was a good one. The prevalence of this explanation in the ex-gay literature, however, did cause some hurt and frustration when I first told my dad about my sexuality. Though I didn’t blame him, I could tell he was concerned he may have done something wrong.

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Sexuality Conversations at Evangelical Colleges

It probably goes without saying that the conversation on faith and sexual orientation is a hot topic at many Christian colleges these days. A growing number of students are talking about their own experiences as sexual minorities, and many people both gay and straight are asking questions about the doctrines they grew up with. Particularly in the evangelical world, I’ve seen some encouraging trends coming from the leadership of some of these colleges, but also some trends that cause me great concern. Campus leaders should not try to hide or suppress conversation about sexual ethics and sexual minorities, but instead should seek to help the campus think through these things openly.

Wesley Hill at Calvin College

At best, some Christian colleges facilitate conversations on sexual identity openly and show that, as one Calvin College staff member put it, “we love our students.” At worst, some colleges try to hide these conversations as much as possible, sometimes to the extent of practicing overt censorship. I will not name individual institutions, but I’m aware of at least two cases in which Christian colleges have exerted power to prevent students from accessing unofficial student publications that include stories of sexual minority students. In those cases, some of the students did advocate for changing Christian teaching, but a primary purpose of the publications was for students to tell their stories. I also know of at least one Christian college at which the administration has prevented the student newspaper from publishing articles about sexual minority students online. I know for a fact that several of those articles did not advocate such a change in teaching. Any of this censorship not only throws sexual minority students, faculty, and staff under the bus, but it actually pushes people away from the traditional sexual ethic.

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On Pressure

A common refrain I see from certain conservative Christian commentators is that homosexuality is “celebrated” in Western culture and that people are “pressured” into accepting “the homosexual lifestyle.” In some sense, I can see where this perception is coming from. I’m currently studying at a large public university, and I have previously done internships in very gay-friendly corporate settings. In these contexts, I do feel quite a bit of pressure to change my beliefs and to affirm all loving, monogamous relationships, including gay relationships with a sexual component.

There are many ways that this perception is problematic, however. The biggest problem I see is that the pressure is far from being one-sided. Ironically, the same people complaining about pressure to affirm gay relationships are themselves often creating immense pressure in a different direction. This pressure is often encouraging me to go beyond holding to traditional sexual ethics, but also to change the labels I use, to try to change my sexual orientation, or to focus my efforts and attention on opposing the gay-affirming segments of society. In some ways, I feel this sort of pressure more acutely than I do the pressure to affirm sexual gay relationships. Rachel Held Evans recently expressed this point well while discussing some related issues: “We aren’t ‘giving in’ to the culture; our culture is evangelical Christianity. We’re struggling with that culture, and doing so comes with a cost.” The fact of the matter is that the social connections that matter the most to me are those of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

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My Early Teen Years Part 2: Practical Reflections

In my last piece, I discussed my own experience as an early teenager finding myself attracted to the same sex. Now, I would like to offer a few reflections on what this means for today’s kids.

We must always start by thinking about how to actually love sexual minority kids. Loving people does not merely reduce to preaching about sexual ethics. Instead, we need to take into account the entirety of Christian teaching. We should start by examining our own hearts. As I wrote about previously, even though I’m not straight, I’ve had to deal with self-righteousness and other negative attitudes towards sexual minorities. I’m certainly not the only Christian to have heart issues responding to sexual minorities, and we need to keep our own motivations at the forefront. Even when sexual sin (which should not be confused with mere orientation) is involved, we must make sure that doctrine matters to us for the right reasons and that we are not only focusing on the sins of others.

Having framed the discussion this way, I will now turn to discussing some specific reflections from my own experience.

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