A “Spirituality of Sex”?

For the month of October, Patheos is hosting a conversation among different faith traditions on “the spirituality of sex,” and they asked me to contribute an entry. Here’s how it starts:

Next time you’re near a time machine, I recommend traveling back to one of the earliest Christian churches—say, in 2nd-century Rome—and paying close attention to what you see and hear. You’ll be struck, of course, by the diversity and the odd, sometimes troubling juxtapositions: Here is a community where slaves and slave owners are drinking from the same Communion cup, where the grip of Caesar’s reign is loosened by a stronger cry: “Jesus is Lord.” Here is a group of people who give alms to the poor, who fast and sometimes mourn for the world’s pain, and sing hymns in open defiance of death, as if dying has somehow lost its terror for them. And here, perhaps most strikingly of all, is a community in which a large percentage of people are single—by choice.

The early Christians, in spite of the “family values” their differing Jewish and pagan pasts had taught them to celebrate, prized virginity. Women and men alike in the early days of the new Jesus movement gave up sex and marriage in droves. As many historians have noted, it’s one of the most extraordinary things about the beginnings of Christianity. In a world where sex was as readily available as the body of the slave in your anteroom or the prostitute in the brothel down the street, a disproportionate number of Jesus-worshipers opted for celibacy. And this may be our first clue as to what a Christian “spirituality of sex” might be: Sex, for Christians, isn’t necessary. It doesn’t “complete” anyone. It isn’t god, and it doesn’t save. If the early Christians shocked Rome by their refusal to worship Caesar, they were equally shocking in their refusal to worship sex.

You can read the rest here.

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Between Presumption and Despair

Yesterday, after speaking at Asbury University the day before, I crossed the street and preached the following sermon in a chapel service at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky:

At Trinity where I’m a faculty member, I recently taught a course on the Gospel of Mark, so I’ve been thinking again about some of Mark’s final scenes. In particular, I’ve been powerfully struck all over again by the so-called “cry of dereliction”—Jesus’ last words from the cross in Mark, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

For so many modern Christians, of course, these words are at the heart of any post-Holocaust theology worth its salt. If we don’t have a God who shares in our agony and misery, then we don’t have a God we can believe in. This is the verse that Jürgen Moltmann put at the heart of his classic book The Crucified God, and it’s probably what prompted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to say, “Only the suffering God can help.” As I told my students, many modern Christians, myself included, are drawn to the way Mark doesn’t prettify or whitewash the horror of the crucifixion. He lets us see the full depths of human suffering, and he shows us Jesus right in the middle of that suffering.

But not all the Gospels follow Mark on this score. Luke chooses not to make the cry of dereliction the final words of Jesus from the cross. Instead, here’s what Luke says: “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems to die in trust and confidence that God has not forsaken him. He entrusts his spirit to God, and he calls God his “Father.”

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“The Birth Pangs of This Present Age”

Yesterday I spoke in chapel at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Here’s what I said:

In a few more weeks, at the end of November, those of us who worship in more high church or liturgical traditions will be starting our new church year. While the rest of the world celebrates the start of the New Year on January 1st, we’ll celebrate the start of the new Christian year on the first Sunday of Advent, the season that will lead us up to the first great feast of the Christian year, Christmas.

The word advent is a word that means arrival or appearing or coming. It’s the time of the year when we wait, once again, for the arrival of Jesus, for him to be born of Mary and laid in the manger and worshiped by angels and shepherds and kings. It’s a time of year when the church remembers that we have to be a patient and expectant and hopeful, pilgrim people. We have to look and long for the coming of the Messiah. And so we wait on tiptoe for several weeks, with hunger and yearning, for the shining feast of Christmas.

Advent may be my favorite time of the Christian calendar. Almost every year, I feel like I stagger into it with relief. After a long summer filled with all sorts of activities and travels, and usually, for me, a more chaotic schedule, I stumble into Advent and breathe a little more deeply and rest a little more easily. Advent reminds me of who I am, of Whom I’m waiting for, and what story I’m a part of.

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A New Way of Being Human

Today at the seminary where I teach, Trinity in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, our monthly Dean’s Hour was on the theme of theological anthropology—a Christian understanding of human nature and persons. I was asked to be one of the speakers, and I chose to focus on St. Paul. Because so much of what we do here at SF is undergirded by the kinds of convictions I tried to articulate, I thought it might be good if I posted my remarks here. So, without further ado:

Our topic for today is theological anthropology—or, more specifically, a Christian view of human nature and human persons. It’s a broad topic, obviously, and I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the many facets of it. But it’s an urgent topic as any glance at the blogosphere or Facebook or your local high school or coffee shop bulletin board will indicate.

In a 2013 New Yorker essay, writer Margaret Talbot described her attendance at the True Colors Conference at the University of Connecticut, an annual event for gay and transgender youth:

At a workshop called “Binary Defiance,” … the facilitator wrote specialized gender labels on the blackboard so fast that I practically sprained my wrist writing them down: “non-binary, gender queer, bigender, trigender, agender, intergender, pangender, neutrois, 3rd gender, androgyne, two-spirit, self-coined, genderfluid.” These ever-narrower labels are meant to be liberating, offering people their own customized categories…

So much of the LGBTQ community, as Talbot was reminded at this conference, seems animated by the conviction that we must be true to who we know ourselves to be in the sanctity of our innermost selves. What should Christians make of this way of thinking?

Of course it’s not just gay or transgender questions that force us to grapple with our Christian theology of human nature and persons. We might also think of bioethical questions about treatments for infertility, dementia, and assisted dying—to pick only three further topics out of myriad possibilities. Truly, engaging the question of what it means to be human before God is required of us if we are going to be able to respond to a whole confusing menagerie of questions thrown up in contemporary Western cultures.

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The Transformation of the Gentiles

In my last post on eunuchs in the New Testament, I promised a follow-up:

One of the most prominent arguments for the so-called “full inclusion” of LGBTQ people in the church is the analogy of the early church’s inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles. In the book of Acts and in the Epistles in the New Testament, Gentile people—despite their ongoing violation of the clear biblical command for those in the covenant family of Abraham to be circumcised—were welcomed and affirmed in the church precisely in their uncircumcised state. In Christ, as St. Paul says, Abraham became “the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (Romans 4:11). Likewise—so the argument goes—LGBTQ people today, despite their ongoing violation of supposedly clear biblical precedent, are also included precisely as sexual minorities. They don’t need to “become straight” (always a losing battle) or give up having sex with a partner of the same sex in order to be full-fledged members in good standing in Christ’s church.

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Another Gay Anglican

As the Spiritual Friendship blog’s resident Episcopalian, this is the kind of thing I gather I’m expected to have opinions about:

The bishop of Grantham has become the first Church of England bishop to publicly declare that he is gay and in a relationship. In a move that will be embraced by campaigners for equality but is likely to alarm conservatives who fear the church is moving away from traditional teachings, Nicholas Chamberlain said there had been no secret about his long-term — albeit celibate — relationship with his partner.

What should those of us who are traditional Anglicans—who continue to believe the Scriptural teaching that marriage is the union of male and female, with openness to the gift of children—make of a story like this?

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Eunuchs and “Full Inclusion”

One of the points proponents of same-sex marriage in the church often make is that the Bible’s trajectory is toward greater, not lesser, inclusiveness. Gentiles, women, eunuchs, “sinners” of various stripes, etc.—all these are, by the time we arrive at the end of the New Testament, clearly at the heart of the kingdom of God, pulled into the sphere of Christ’s church from the margins they occupied under the old covenant (Ephesians 2:11-12).

I hope to say more about this theme later in the week here on the blog, but for now I wanted to focus briefly the claim that the case of the “full inclusion” of eunuchs in the early church is analogous to the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church today. As the argument goes, eunuchs were “others,” outsiders, and not fully included in the people of God under the old covenant (see Deuteronomy 23:1). But now, in Christ, they are (see Acts 8:26-39). Likewise—so goes the progressive case—gay and lesbian people too, formerly not fully included (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), ought to be included now, in Christ, welcomed and wholly affirmed in their faithful, monogamous loves.

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The Long Defeat and the Long Loneliness

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.”

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Ministry That Helps (Part 1)

Recently I gave a talk to a group of folks who work for a campus ministry. They had asked me to come and speak on the theme of ministering to LGBT students at colleges and universities. I get a lot of requests like this, and, truth be told, in the days leading up to the event, I was thinking I would simply dust off a talk I’d given a dozen times before. But the more I thought about it, the more I kept combing back through my memories of being a—deeply closeted—college student and of the kind of ministry that meant the most to me. After a few days pondering these memories, I took out a pad of paper and started to write a list. I wrote down the characteristics of the people and the gestures and the conversations that helped me find grace and hope when I most needed it. I came up with a list of ten points, and I’d like to share them here. I’ll post the first five today and the next five tomorrow. And I’d love it if folks added to this list in the comment section.

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