True and False Friendship

Suzzallo Library - University of Washington

I saw the Graduate Reading Room in the Suzzallo Library for the first time during freshman orientation at the University of Washington—just a few hours before the fateful party where Jason and I discovered our mutual love of planes. As it turned out, the reading room has proven a happier and longer-lived companion.

The reading room has always been a kind of academic cloister for me. As an undergraduate in the mid nineties, I had no cell phone, no laptop, no WiFi internet access. Once I settled into one of the comfortable armchairs at the end of the reading room, I was almost cut off from the outside world, left alone with my thoughts and my books.

The architecture called to mind the great halls of Europe’s castles and sanctuaries of Europe’s cathedrals. It was easier to conjure up the past there than it was in the more utilitarian modern spaces of the libraries at Saint Louis University and the University of Notre Dame. I could feel people, places, and events come alive as I read there, in a way that they did not in my dorm room or a coffee shop or in the the fluorescent glare of the Hesburgh Library.

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Revelation

[This post was originally written for Friday, October 14. A combination of weather-related travel delays and getting feedback from my friend Chris delayed posting until now.]

Notre Dame Basilica and Dome

In the fall of 2009, I moved to South Bend for a year-long exchange at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. At the Ethics and Culture Conference that November, I met Chris Damian, a Notre Dame freshman interested in philosophy and theology.

For the first couple of years after we met, we had interesting conversations when we ran into each other (which was not often) and exchanged occasional emails if one of us saw something we thought would interest the other. He was popular and charismatic, and I saw his natural leadership talents emerge as he immersed himself in pro-life activism and defending the faith on campus.

After a couple of years passed like this, I was in South Bend again for a conference, and we arranged to meet for dinner. At some point in the conversation, we got into a discussion of homosexuality and changing sexual orientation. Chris thought Christians should talk more about hope for orientation change.

I disagreed.

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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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Always Consider the Person

World Meeting of Families Transcript

This is a transcript of my presentation with my mother, Beverley Belgau, at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, in conjunction with Pope Francis’s first pastoral visit to the United States. The World Meeting of Families is a global Catholic event, like World Youth Day. The first World Meeting of Families was called together by Pope St. John Paul II in 1994 to celebrate the International Year of the Family. It has grown into the largest gathering of families in the world, and this year’s meeting in Philadelphia beat all previous attendance records.

This was also the first time in the history of the World Meeting that an openly gay—and celibate—Catholic was invited to speak about his experiences in the Church and in his family. 

Because of a room scheduling snafu, we started late (the room was filled to overflowing and hundreds of people were reportedly turned away). To make up, we cut some material on the fly. This reflects the original transcript, not the presentation as delivered. Because this talk highlights a lot of points we have made at Spiritual Friendship over the years, I’ve included links to other posts, if you want to learn more. 

After the formal presentation, we answered audience questions for over two hours; even then, we only left because the Convention Center staff said we had to leave; there were still dozens of people in the room listening, and people in line waiting to ask questions. This speaks to just how important it is for the Church to take more time to talk about how families and parishes can respond to their lesbian and gay members with Christ-like love.

Given the length of the presentation, I have added numbered paragraphs to help locate material within the text.  
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Friendship and Catholic Teaching about Homosexuality

Popes Francis and Benedict

Friendship has been an important theme in the Catholic Church’s pastoral guidance regarding homosexuality. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), which provides a comprehensive overview of Catholic teaching,

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

The Catechism also draws a more general connection between chastity and friendship:

2347 The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality.

Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.

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On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment

As Mark Yarhouse pointed out yesterday, Julie Rodgers (and by extension many of the rest of us who blog here at Spiritual Friendship) has recently been facing criticism from her fellow Christians for the way she describes her sexuality and her faith. She writes:

A gay orientation can be understood as an overall draw toward someone of the same sex, which is usually a desire for a deeper level intimacy with those of the same sex. Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex, a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex. This longing for intimacy is usually experienced as a desire for nearness, for partnership, for close friendship, rich conversation, and an overall appreciation of beauty. The best way I can describe my experience of “being gay” is that with certain women I feel the “it” factor: that sense of chemistry that longs to share life with them, to know and be known by them, to be drawn outside of myself in self-giving love for them. When I feel all Lesbiany, I experience it as a desire to build a home with a woman that will create an energizing love that spills over into the kind of hospitality that actually provides guests with clean sheets and something other than protein bars. Most women feel that chemistry or longing for other men (even though it can’t be reduced to a desire to have sex with other men), while I usually feel like “bros” with men. This causes me to see the world through a different lens than my straight peers, to exist in the world in a slightly different way. As God has redeemed and transformed me, he’s tapped into those gay parts of me that now overflow into compassion for marginalized people and empathy for social outcasts—he’s used my gay way of being for His glory rather than making me straight.

Here’s an example of the kind of pushback Julie has received: Owen Strachan, an assistant professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College, has argued that this way of speaking

is deeply problematic. It is flawed at the core. Our sins do not enrich our perspective on life; our sins twist God’s good gifts and obscure the purposes of our bodies and our world. Sin never improves your outlook on the world. It always distorts it. Please hear me: there is nothing redemptive about sin. Grace, on the other hand, is the very substance of redemption. But sin has nothing to do with goodness. As far as the east is from the west, so far is sin from any positive moral component.

You can read the rest of his argument here, which can be summarized in three points: “1. The Bible never speaks of positive components of our sins… 2. Homosexuality in Scripture is not neutral. It is evil… 3. Homosexual orientation, therefore, does not yield an enhanced Christian spirituality.”

I’m still trying to understand for myself exactly where the disagreement lies, so this post isn’t going to be my last word on the subject. For now, I just want to try out a thought experiment. I want to suggest that these sharply differing views—Julie’s and Owen Strachan’s—are, in part, the result of different understandings of what “homosexuality” fundamentally is.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, depending on which historical era you lived in, you thought about same-sex desire and same-sex sexual expression differently. If you were a Christian in the medieval era, for instance, you probably thought of same-sex sexual behavior as an instance of lust giving birth to passionate transgression. What was in your sights wasn’t “gay culture” or “being gay” but acting wrongly or desiring wrongly (i.e., being tempted, nurturing lustful imaginations, etc.). You thought about sex between persons of the same sex as a vice that could potentially befall anyone, and you knew that Christianity condemned it categorically, no matter who committed it or what extenuating circumstances there might have been. Continue reading

Panel on the Sinfulness, or Otherwise, of “Sexual Orientation”

This past weekend I was in San Diego for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, where I presented a paper-length version of my “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?” post from a few months ago. I’m not quite ready to post the paper here, since I think there are various weaknesses and not-quite-clear arguments in it, but I hope to revisit the main ideas at some point in the future. Stay tuned.

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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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