Two years ago, as I was just beginning to think more critically about my faith and sexuality, I attended a wedding. It has been interesting to revisit the memorialized emotions that accompanied the ceremony, to examine the well-worn paths down which my uncertain thoughts routinely fled when confronted by longing and sorrow.
Weddings used to primarily remind me of all I couldn’t have, my easily startled psyche darting away from the encroaching shadows of jealousy and isolation. I would think, over and over, “I want this. I still want this.” There was always a bitter ache, a subcutaneous anxiety. Pain threatened my convictions and wove itself into every sensation. Unsurprisingly, I imagined that watching my best friend get married would be a similar experience, just exponentially moreso.
I am not a scholar of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have not read a book-length biography of the man. And my exposure to his writing is limited to Letters and Papers from Prison, the unabridged version (800 pages)!
With those prefatory remarks out of the way, let me say that I am intrigued by how two reviewers of a recent biography have responded to a claim about Bonhoeffer’s homosexual disposition. Charles Marsh, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, has authored, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My goal here is not to adjudicate the truth or falsehood of Mr. Marsh’s claim, but to ask why we are making much ado about Bonhoeffer’s alleged sexuality, which may be some-thing or no-thing at all.
One year later, the commentary continues, with the most recent issue of Commonweal including responses to Bottum’s thesis from two high-profile Catholic journalists. Ross Douthat—a columnist for the New York Times—criticizes Bottum for going too far. Douthat argues that if Catholics “are to continue contending in the American public square,” then “there is no honest way for the church to avoid stating its position on what the legal definition of marriage ought to be.” Jamie L. Manson, on the other hand, thinks that Bottum does not go far enough. She argues that gay couples should not only be allowed by the secular government to contract civil marriages, but that Catholic teaching should change to recognize “the potential of a gay or lesbian couple to fulfill the requirements of sacramental marriage.”
In every culture, human beings must face and find answers to this question. However, there is no single, universally shared language and or set of categories for thinking about the question. Instead, each culture develops its own—more or less adequate—way of thinking and speaking about how we ought to act toward each other.
Recent discussions of the language of sexual identity have gotten me thinking about a more general question: how should thinking Christians engage with moral questions generally in a culture, like our own, that has confused and poorly constructed moral categories? (I apologize in advance for a very philosophical post.)
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued against the various conceptual frameworks for understanding morality that emerged from the enlightenment, arguing that they had to fail. The key problem he identifies with post-enlightenment approaches to morality is the rejection of teleology.
A priest I know—we’ll call him Thomas—had studied in Rome as a seminarian some years ago. While there, he had become good friends with an English seminarian, Joseph, and the two would regularly spend hours walking through the Eternal City and talking. One day, they were walking through a Roman garden, and Joseph slipped his arm into Thomas’, drawing close as they walked. Instantly, Thomas tensed up, caught off-guard and uneasy.
Joseph turned to him and laughed: “Tom, you’re such an American. Relax. I just want to be close to you.”
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We tend to think that touch and sight are things we simply do. We rarely contemplate how these senses are learned, how we not only touch and see, but also touch and see well or badly.
During college, I was part of a young men’s prayer group, and our leader, an Anglican priest, once gave us a copy of a letter C. S. Lewis sent in 1956 to Keith Masson, an American reader of his. The topic of the letter was masturbation. Here is an excerpt:
For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself…. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination.
The true exercise of imagination, in my view, is (a) To help us to understand other people (b) To respond to, and, some of us, to produce, art. But it has also a bad use: to provide for us, in shadowy form, a substitute for virtues, successes, distinctions etc. which ought to be sought outside in the real world—e.g. picturing all I’d do if I were rich instead of earning and saving. Masturbation involves this abuse of imagination in erotic matters (which I think bad in itself) and thereby encourages a similar abuse of it in all spheres. After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison.
This is a wise and humane letter, and when my fellow students and I received it from our mentor many years ago, it generated several lines of fruitful conversation. But rereading it now, I’m struck afresh by its particular vantage point: It is written with the assumption, it seems, that its recipient will one day marry. The harem that the lustful young man keeps in his imagination “works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman.” I’m sure Lewis was right to take that approach, but it makes me wonder what he would have said to many of us who are celibate and not planning to be married. If we are going to avoid masturbation, we need a different incentive than the one Lewis offers, since few of us expect to “unite with a real woman” someday.
“For both Aristotle and Aquinas, friendship stands at the core of human and Divine reality… If we get that wrong, we get it all wrong.” -Fr. James Schall
When I was a child, I used to have night terrors. When I had bad dreams, I would sit up in my bed and cry or yell while I was sleeping. My parents would have to come up to my room, gently wake me, and then help me fall back to sleep.
I don’t have night terrors anymore, but I do occasionally have bad dreams. Like the night terrors, I don’t always remember them. Once, when I was visiting a friend, he told me one morning that he had woken me up the night before. Apparently, he heard me having a bad dream, so he woke me up, made sure everything was fine, and told me to go back to bed. I don’t remember any of this.
This is one fear I have: suffering under a bad dream in the night and not having anyone around to wake me up, and to tell me to go back to sleep. It sounds silly. It makes me sound like a child. But this is not a childish fear. It’s a human fear. It’s a fear of falling into a brokenness that you don’t even realize and that can only be alleviated by those who have loved you so much that they know you better than you know yourself. It’s the realization that you can become careless or tired and unaware of your failings and that, from time to time, you need people to make up for your inadequacies. It’s the commonly admitted fear of dying alone that acts as a mask for the real, underlying fear: the fear of living alone.
For many Catholics of my parents’ generation, the dramatic shift in social attitudes about homosexuality and the new visibility of gay and lesbian people in the media and popular culture is troubling.
Despite their discomfort with a changing culture, however, most older Catholics have been through enough struggles in their own life to want to extend grace and to give space to those with different struggles. But when the struggle is same sex attraction, they are unsure how to welcome people while remaining true to their beliefs. This is especially difficult in a culture where merely expressing traditionally Christian beliefs about the sinfulness of gay sex can trigger accusations of bigotry and comparisons with the KKK.
Given all of this, it’s not surprising that many are unsure how to respond to younger Catholics who speak openly about their sexual orientation, but pledge fidelity to Church teaching. Eve’s article, however, may go a long way toward helping them to understand us a little better.
What gay Christians most yearn for, she writes, is a vision of what our futures might look like. After a touching reflection on the role of the cross in our lives, Tushnet concludes,
We’re often ashamed to admit that we suffer. It’s humiliating and it makes us feel like we’re not good enough Christians. This is bizarre since there are very few aspects of Jesus’ own internal life that we know as much about as His suffering. Jesus—unmarried, marginalized, misunderstood, a son and a friend but not a father or spouse—is the preeminent model for gay Christians. In this, as in so many things, we are just like everybody else.
One of the things that I have long admired and tried to emulate about Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is his care to respond non-violently to those who attacked him, at to teach his followers to do the same. He was not passive in the face of evil, but his goal was always to convert those who treated him evilly, not to respond in kind, and not to try to destroy them as they had tried to destroy him.
I thought it would be appropriate, in celebration of the Martin Luther King holiday, to offer the advice King gave at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott for thought and meditation.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white bus rider. Within days, the black community in Montgomery decided to organize a boycott of the city buses, to protest the discriminatory treatment of black bus riders. Initially intended to last only a few days, the boycott lasted over a year, until the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional, and integrated bus service began on December 20, 1956.
I’ve been asked multiple times in the past month why I am still side-B, why I am still pursuing celibacy as a gay 23 year-old in these United States of America. What is interesting to me is how, with each inquiring friend, it was implied that we weren’t discussing theology or the interpretation of certain notorious texts. The “why” was really more of a “how.”
It’s a refreshing change.
One of the more frustrating things about the current conversation is how it so easily gets sucked into the myopic quicksand of “what the Bible says.” Please don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the authority of scripture and the importance of right interpretation, and I probably wouldn’t be celibate if I didn’t think the Bible taught it, but there is a dangerous attitude of “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” running rampant in many churches.
The idea that the conversation straight up ends with interpretation is, honestly, lethal to true religion, strangling the imagination out of faith and poisoning the endlessly complex “how then shall we live” of the Christian life. I think the rate at which gay Christians are abandoning celibacy is a pretty good indicator of that fact; though not always the case, the majority of people I know who have made the switch do so notbecause they’ve been convinced by “affirming” theology but because celibacy and an abundant life seem mutually exclusive, which, I need to add, is a kind of theological reason in its own right.