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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Voluntary Or Not, Celibacy Is A Gift

Sunrise view taken by the STS-109 crew aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. NASA Identifier: sts109-345-032

Wes Hill has just written a wonderful (favorite I’ve ever read?) reflection on “the long defeat” of the Christian life, and how that intersects with the call to celibacy outside of a marriage between a man and a woman. Please read it!

As I was taking it in, another thought struck me, one that I and others have written about before, but came into sharper focus as I read Wes’ words. It has to do with the charisma, or gift, of celibacy. I have heard this gift used as an argument against the traditional sexual ethic. The case, as fairly as I can put it, goes something like this: throughout church history celibacy has been a voluntary state chosen in conjunction with a call from God. But to “mandate” celibacy for all gay Christians removes it from the realm of voluntary and places it in the realm of requirement. And requiring celibacy for those who have not discerned the gift of celibacy for themselves is cruel and outside the heart of God.

This would be an appropriate place to discuss the calling to a mixed-orientation marriage (MOM), but that is for a different post. As I was reading Wes’ piece, it struck me that neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul speak of the gift of celibacy as strictly voluntary. Rather, both affirm the notion that if you are in a state of celibacy, regardless of the circumstances that led you there, it is to be viewed as a beautiful gift from God.

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“The Lobster”

Last week I saw The Lobster, an extremely sad and violent romantic comedy about a world in which, if you don’t find a romantic partner within 45 days, you’ll be turned into an animal. It’s sort of “Why Our Culture Desperately Needs Spiritual Friendship: The Movie.” I hesitate to recommend it to you guys, because it was really hard to watch, partly because it’s so bleak and partly because it’s bleak specifically about loneliness and feeling like there’s no place in the world for someone who hasn’t found a spouse. But it’s a revealing movie–a funhouse mirror held up to our culture as it really is. I reviewed it here.

But here I’d like to talk about what isn’t in the movie even a little bit, because–and maybe this is spoilerous–what’s totally absent are the three theological virtues.

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Desiring Permanence

Sunrise view taken by the STS-109 crew aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. NASA Identifier: sts109-345-032

The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.” I sometimes wonder if this means he has placed in our hearts a longing for permanence.

Unmarried or married, most of us will admit that we long for a place we can eventually “settle down” or “raise a family”.  If you are like me, perhaps you just want a place where you know that those closest to your heart are always close to your home.

Marriage and family are probably the most permanent things we can expect within our lives in the highly transitory culture that we live in. And being unmarried can often strike fear into many, including myself, because for most it sounds like a life lacking permanent companionship.

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One Brief Thought on the “Architecture” of the Various Christian Callings

This past weekend I visited City Church in San Francisco to have a public conversation with my friend Julie Rodgers about moral disagreement over same-sex marriage in the church. The goal of the conversation was to explore our differences—Julie is “Side A,” which means she believes God blesses same-sex marriages, and I’m “Side B,” believing that marriage is “male and female”—and to talk about what it might look like to find friendship and some kind of common cause in the midst of disagreement.

I won’t go into all of what happened at the event—the audio recording should be posted soon at the church’s website, and you can listen for yourself—but I did want to reflect a bit here on a couple of the points of divergence between Julie and me, in the hope of continuing the conversation…

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The Fluidity of Eros and Philia

stations-of-the-cross-460271_1280-1024x511

Cross-posted from Catholic Authenticity

The BBC has an interesting story today on an “intense” friendship between John Paul II and philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. The story itself is quite beautiful, but it’s also interesting to see the reactions that circle around it. On the one hand, someone at the BBC seems to be doing their best to milk a little bit of salacious click-bait out of the matter (as a writer, I suspect the hand of an editor in this – the lines that hint at non-existent intrigue seem a little forced, as if they were added or augmented after the original draft.) On the other hand, some of the comments that I’ve seen on FaceBook make it clear that a certain portion of the Catholic world would have been scandalized even without the BBC’s help.

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Genesis 2:18, Celibacy, and Context

In my previous post on Protestants and celibacy, I focused primarily on the Scripture passages that address celibacy directly. Another important part of Scripture to consider, and one frequently brought up, is the account in Genesis. God’s claim that “it is not good that the man should be alone” in Genesis 2:18 (ESV) is a common proof text for a negative view of celibacy. As I have written previously, I do not believe that equating “alone” and “unmarried” is a responsible way to read this passage.

Adam Names the Animals

I would like to focus on understanding what Scripture is really teaching us in the Genesis account. I will do so by focusing on one of the most important principles of interpreting Scripture, namely paying attention to context. In examining various areas of context, I’ve come to the conclusion that procreation is a significant component of God’s solution to “being alone.” Adam’s difficulty lay not in being unmarried: the difficulty was rather that he was the only human being.  Humans, after all, are designed to need connections with each other. Marriage is but one form of this connection made possible by a world where people follow the command to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Celibacy, in turn, has its own inherent difficulties. Most people desire the kind of shared life usually found in marriage and have the biological desire to have sex. These desires, particularly the sexual ones, are unlikely to go away just because one has other forms of community. But we also need to learn to view celibacy the way Scripture does, which  includes reading Genesis 2:18 in the light of what the passage is actually saying. We must not read something into it other than what is actually there. Without further ado, let’s look at one of the major areas of context. Continue reading

Desiring Differently

For my money, some of the very sharpest, most creative, most genuinely helpful stuff being written on Christian faith and (homo)sexuality is by my friend Steve Holmes, a Baptist minister who teaches theology at the University of St. Andrews. I’ve mentioned Steve before here at SF—if you haven’t already, do read about his “Queer Hippo” project, and check out this interview with Vicki Beeching—and I wanted to mention him again today because he’s just posted the paper he gave at this year’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Here’s an excerpt that I hope will entice a lot of you to go and read the whole essay:

At some point in the twentieth century, we in the West became convinced that sexual activity is necessary for healthy and properly adult human life. Let me, inexactly, call this the ‘Freudian’ position. The call to celibacy in this context sounds like an act of astonishing cruelty, depriving someone of a basic necessity for human flourishing.

Our inherited ethical tradition does not have the language or arguments to deal with this challenge, because it is not the challenge it was crafted to address. We have, literally, nothing to say theologically (and this is true whether we think the right way forward is conservative or progressive, which is why there are presently so few good books on sexual ethics from any side).

It gets worse, though: for a couple of generations, we Evangelicals – and all other Protestants – essentially surrendered to this error by making marriage an inevitable part of Christian maturity. We constructed church programmes on the assumption that single people were either young adults preparing for marriage or elderly and widowed; we doubted ministerial candidates who was not married, because they could therefore not be properly ‘grown up’. This was a capitulation to an error, but it sort of worked OK – until the churches were forced to acknowledge that some people are lesbian/gay/exclusively same-sex attracted, and so not able to accept the inevitability of (traditional) marriage. If we think marriage belongs necessarily to the fulness of life, not in a response to death, then we have no answers for lesbian and gay disciples that are not culturally unimaginable and unspeakably cruel.

We can see this capitulation working itself out in the way in which, in many churches, the beginning and end of sexual ethics is telling young people to ‘save themselves for marriage’ as if sex was an uncomplicated human good that merely needs to be properly located by our moral reasoning. Let us be completely clear: that is not a Christian sexual ethic; that is the ethic of a pagan fertility cult that worships sex because it cannot believe in the resurrection of Christ. We should rather teach people, young and old, married and single – and in complex erotic relationships – that their lived responses to their sexual desires must be ever increasingly ordered to the resurrected life of the Kingdom.

The deep reflection of the Church on the Scriptures has led to the conviction that there are two, and only two, ways of life that are so ordered: marriage and celibacy. Marriage – if it is to be something good, and not merely a concession to our stony hearts, is absolutely not a space for the unlimited indulgence of sexual desires. Rather, it is a set of practices in and through which we learn to desire differently. We’ve heard already Paul insisting on a mutual bodily surrender between spouses in 1 Corinthians; these internal acts of mutual submission, of re-ordering our sinful and selfish desires, are reinforced by the necessary openness to procreation that exists in the marriage relationship. Children, in the light of the resurrection of Christ, are not a way of responding to death, but an opportunity for our crabbed and incurved selves to be opened out in love.

Celibacy, if it is to be something good, and not merely the presence of an absence, is similarly a set of practices in and through which we learn to desire differently. Lacking the opportunity to endlessly submit to a spouse, the celibate Christian will intentionally seek ways to open her life out in love – and the church, if it is to be faithful to the gospel of the resurrection – must offer her such ways. Inevitably these will involve practices of community, probably ordered by rule; I strongly suspect that they will need to involve the sorts of vowed friendships that Wesley Hill was talking about in part on Tuesday night.

Please read the whole thing.

The Future of Asceticism

Over the last couple of years, Eve Tushnet and I have batted around the idea of co-writing a blog post or essay as if we were looking back on the present from the vantage point of fifty years or so. What will be different in Christian conversations about homosexuality in several decades? And what will we wish we had changed sooner?

I’ve been thinking again about this as I’ve been reading the Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley’s newest book this past week, The New Asceticism: Gender, Sexuality and the Quest for God, which I hope to write a lot more about here in the days to come (and which I’ll be reviewing for Books & Culture). One of the main things Coakley is concerned to do in this book is to help us all achieve better, more Christian disagreements with each other, and the sort of future she imagines for “sexuality” discussions is one that I am powerfully drawn to.

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Protestant Opposition to Celibacy

Outside discussions about gay and lesbian people, I’ve found that most Protestants tend to have a very low view of celibacy. This manifests itself in a number of ways. For example, single seminary graduates often find that it can be difficult to become a pastor in an evangelical church without being married. Lack of marriage can be viewed with suspicion, as an indication that people are likely to fall to sexual sin. Some even argue that failure to marry is a sinful shirking of adult responsibility.

Solitary Tree

Underlying much of this attitude is the belief that for the vast majority of people, celibacy is either impossible or cannot be fulfilling. For example, many Protestants blame the Catholic sex abuse scandal on the requirement that priests remain unmarried, and this is taken as a cautionary tale against an expectation of celibacy. Many Protestants see celibate living as a needless source of loneliness, and as the sort of thing that can be viewed as a form of punishment. On the other hand, they see marriage as the universal solution to the problems of loneliness and sexual temptation.

This relates to the increasing movement of Protestant communities in the direction of viewing marriage as a legitimate vocation for same-sex couples. It is becoming increasingly well-known that there are people with a stable, enduring pattern of attraction to people of the same sex, without corresponding attractions to people of the opposite sex. There are a number of such people who blog here on Spiritual Friendship (although I’m not actually one of them). For such people, marriage to someone of the opposite sex can bring significant issues and is not always advisable.

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