James Brownson on Romans 1

I got horribly sick last week with strep throat, which completely destroyed my writing and posting schedule. I hope to be back on track with new material this Thursday or next Monday, but till then, I thought I would post James Brownson’s second lecture from his lecture series for The Reformation Project.

Dr. Brownson is, I believe, the new bar of affirming theology, and if you havn’t read his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality yet, you really must.

Watch his lecture on Gender complementarity here.



James Brownson on Gender Complementarity

If you haven’t yet read Dr. Brownson’s excellent book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, (you really should) you can now watch a series of lectures he gave for The Reformation Project outlining his book. They are all excellent, and well worth your time. You can also read my interview with him here.

In the following video, Dr. Brownson lectures on Gender Complementarity, and exposes some fundamental problems with it.

Celibacy as a Death Sentence

Several months ago, I had a conversation with a dear lesbian friend of mine who believes that, while it is okay to have a gay orientation, it would be sinful for her to act on her desires and be sexually or romantically involved with another woman. (This view is commonly referred to as “Side B”, while “Side A” is the belief that God blesses same sex unions. And yes, yes, I know, it is far more complicated than just the simple polarities of two “sides”, but, Lord have mercy, I don’t have the time or energy to go down that rabbit hole in this post.) During that conversation, she told me, “I feel like it is part of my job to show the world that celibacy isn’t the death sentence that everyone says it is.” I’ve been thinking about that statement ever since, because I think that, buried within it, is one of the ideas that frustrates me the most about the traditional sexual ethic.

First, though, allow me to make an important caveat. When I first wrote this piece several weeks ago, I was much angrier and made far more sweeping, all encompassing statements. As I re-read the piece, I realized that I was speaking for all gay people and the beliefs of all Side B people, when I should have only been speaking about my own personal experience as a gay man, and my own personal encounters with Side B. I don’t want to be unfair. So I want to acknowledge that everything I’m writing is very much about my own journey, my own relationships,  and my own experiences. I will let others decide how universal they are.

Based on my my reading of Side B authors, my conversations with Side B people, and my own personal experience of trying to live the traditional ethic, I don’t think it is too great a stretch (please correct me and help me understand if I am wrong) to say that the traditional ethic on homosexuality assumes that everyone is capable of living a celibate life. That must be the assumption, as the most logical conclusion of Side B is that celibacy is demanded of every gay person on the planet who cannot cultivate a heterosexual relationship.

When put that way – that everyone can live a life of celibacy – I cannot technically disagree with it. People live with all sorts of things that I wish they didn’t have to, and often at great and terrible cost. To me, the statement, “all gay people can live a celibate life,” addresses the wrong concern. The question should really be, “should all people live a celibate life? And if so, what will it cost them? Will it cost them their sustainability, their livelihood, their health, their life? Will it result in a life of unending anguish? Will it impair their capacity better to follow Christ?”

The Side B crowd is, perhaps, so insistent that celibacy is not a death sentence because they want to counter the oversexualization of our culture and the idolatry of marriage and romantic love as the only path to true happiness in this life. They want to re-establish friendship as an important crucible for fulfillment, and as equally valid as romantic love. They want to counter the myth that all celibate gay people are white-knuckling, emotionally stunted, ashamed individuals who lead lives of abject misery. They also want both the church and the gay community to accept them as they are: gay, celibate, devoutly committed to their convictions, and, perhaps most unsettling to us, happy.

That’s all good, and I stand with them on every bit of it. I believe the Church and the gay community should accept them as they are, no matter how uncomfortable that may make us feel in the process. I also believe that the vocation of celibacy is important to the life of the church – when the church loses celibate people, we all suffer. I believe, now just as much as I did when I myself was Side B, that friendship is a love as powerful, as intimate, and as important as Eros. I believe we should allow Side B gay people to challenge both the church’s and the gay community’s assumptions about happiness, fulfillment, and sexuality. I believe that, at the very least, Side B people are very good medicine for an American culture that has difficulty processing the lives they are trying to lead.

But I fear that, in trying to advocate for all these various causes, something truly vital is lost. That something vital seems to me to be empathy: the ability to recognize and experience the complexity of other people’s experiences, even if they don’t align with our own. And please, please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that side B people are unempathetic, but that their words can come across that way. When I hear a Side B person say, as many of my Side B mentors said to me, “Everyone is capable of living a life of celibacy”, I hear a lack of ability to de-centralize from their own experience. To say that celibacy is universally sustainable is to say to me and others like me who find celibacy destructive, “Your experience does not matter. My healthy experience of celibacy proves that you can have a healthy experience, as well.” I, for one, find this dismissal deeply, deeply invalidating, and I think that some of the pushback the Side B community may encounter from the larger gay community is rooted in precisely this experience of invalidation and dismissal.

As I have already described at length on this blog, my personal experience of trying to commit to celibacy was harrowing. After spending probably hundreds of hours reflecting and praying over my experience in trying to live Side B, this is where I am now, with no embellishment, no hyperbole, no over-the-top hysterics: I would rather die than go back. If I were someday convinced by reason and the conviction of the Holy Spirit that Side B is correct (I possibility I must consider, despite how painful that would be for me) I fear I would consider suicide an option. Unless God did something miraculous to make the burden possible for me to carry, I would truly prefer lethal injection.

While this current season of my life has by no means been easy,  it has, without question,  been the happiest,  the most stable,  the most healthy, and the most tranquil.  I know a great deal of that has to do with leaving my convictions behind. I’m not saying that because because happiness through full self-acceptance is the cultural “script” for me as a gay man. I am saying it because, for me, it happens to be true.

I know that my deadly experience with Side B is not universal. I know that it is all bound up in my personal blocks and history and experiences, and the uniqueness of my situation. I know that, despite my best efforts, in the wise and supportive people who surrounded me, I couldn’t divorce celibacy from shame. I couldn’t grasp the celibacy mandate as an expression of God’s love for me or detach it from a punishment that I did nothing to deserve, no matter how much I wanted to believe otherwise. I knew the answers, I knew the ways forward, I knew that “celibacy isn’t really the point,” and I had wonderful people supporting me, but that didn’t seem to matter – I was coming up against the uniqueness of my own situation. And the only way I have been able to get away from those negative messages is to get away from Side B.

And that exactly illustrates my point. People don’t live in vacuums. People don’t always live with the perfect conditions – both internally and externally – that make celibacy possible or healthy. People have real histories and real struggles and real contexts that are complex and diverse and that can block them from ever being healthy in a certain way of life. This shouldn’t surprise us, because it is human nature.

When I was doing my yoga therapy training, the first thing we learned is that different people have different limitations. “Sometimes,” my teacher said,  “we come up against the uniqueness of someone’s body in therapy, and we will have to work with them in  a different way. We will have to modify their practice to accommodate their uniqueness, so that they will be restored instead of destroyed.”

This where I have to reveal one of my deepest passions and perhaps one of my greatest biases. I am, to my very bones, a therapist. I was put on this earth to help people with pain, be it emotional, physical, or relational. I can listen to the stories of sustainable, joyful celibacy from people who hold the traditional ethic and rejoice in what I hear. But the question I always ask – the question I can’t help asking – is, “okay, now what implications does this have for everyone else? What does the prohibition against homosexuality, the belief gay sex is intrinsically disordered, mean for the gay couple of 40 years, the 15 year old, the closeted athlete, the gay husband of a woman?” Maybe it’s the wrong question, but it’s the question I have to ask. And when I hear articulations of the traditional ethic, my immediate, gut level, overwhelming response is the desire to protect other people. I never, ever want another human soul – especially a teenager or young adult – to experience what I experienced. It’s also why I become deeply distressed when many people confide in me their own personal horror stories regarding celibacy; I want nothing more than to find some kind of solution.

In a perfect world, we could all run marathons. We wouldn’t have degenerative arthritis in our joints,  we wouldn’t have unique blocks and differences and histories. We wouldn’t have congenital, chronic conditions that narrow the scope of what we can and cannot do with our bodies. We wouldn’t have injuries that limit our movement – but we do. Even great athletes have unique limitations, and when we try just to push through – when we choose to ignore our uniqueness instead of work with it – that’s when we kill ourselves. That isn’t just true for our bodies, that is true for the whole spectrum of our being.

Sometimes, the uniqueness of someone’s history, emotional makeup, and context prohibits them from reaching sustainable celibacy. That’s the way it was for me, and that’s the way it is for many people I know. I have a friend who bought chemical castration pills, had them in his hand ready to swallow them, because he felt that it was the only way to live up to his convictions. Ryan Robertson, the son of my friends Rob and Linda Robertson, ran away from home and eventually died of a drug overdose because, in part, he had absorbed the message, at the age of 17, that he was uniquely forbidden from ever having the kind of marriage relationship that his parents had so beautifully modeled. The stories are endless.

What disturbs and angers me (the caretaker and therapist in me) is what feels like the dismissal or lack of recognition of such unique blocks in people’s lives. I don’t know if it is denial or simply a worldview issue, but it troubles me, especially when the very same people who seem unwilling to accept the possibility that celibacy is destructive for some are rallying for their own acceptance as celibate gay people. The human experience of sexuality is vast – is it not vast enough to include stories of both fulfilling and destructive celibacy? Why does it have to be just one or the other? Why are we so resistant to that possibility?

We acknowledge a myriad of reasons why someone may uniquely be blocked from marriage. We look at people who have been single for decades and come to peace with the fact that, for whatever reason, the uniqueness of their situation did not allow them to marry. I am fascinated – absolutely fascinated – as to why we don’t recognize that there might also be such blocks and complexity with celibacy. Is it because we view celibacy as an ultimately passive state? Or a waiting room for marriage? Or as merely the “off setting” to marriage’s “on setting”? Whatever the reason, it reveals our underlying misunderstanding about celibacy and marriage: neither are passive states. Celibacy is just as sexual, just as active, as marriage.

Do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that all people who hold the the traditional ethic should abandon their beliefs. I am, instead, asking that people struggle more deeply with the reality of the unique blocks different people face. I am not even saying that such a struggle will result in you agreeing with me about the morality of gay marriage. Instead, I hope that such a struggle will result in something better and more compassionate than what the traditional church currently offers gay people.

The statement, “everyone can be celibate” simply does not account for the complexity of human reality. What disturbs me about the church’s “all gays must be celibate” approach is that it seems to have an utterly different, theoretical humanity in mind – a humanity that is perfect, untouched by the complexity of life’s blocks. What does that say about our theology? What does that say about how the church interacts with gay people? I fear it reveals the attitude that gay people are theoretical, a statistic rather than real human beings with complex lives. At the very least, It means that our own theology about gay people lacks the nature of Jesus the Word, Who put on flesh and walked among us, meeting the complexity of human experience with open arms.

of Celibacy and Dissonance

Eliel Cruz recently wrote an interesting Op-Ed piece for the gay magazine The Advocate titled “In Defense of Celibate Gay Christians.”

There are some very good things about the article. First, the fact that a publication like The Advocate is willing to print the piece is (maybe) a sign of changing times. It shows that the gay community might be more willing to talk about sex and celibacy in a way that that was far less common even a few years ago. Nor is this the first secular, gay affirming magazine to run a profile of celibate gay people – Slate Magazine recently published an article profiling some celibate gay Christians as well. It seems that the gay community is becoming more and more aware of the presence of celibate gay Christians.

Cruz challenges the reduction of identity to sexuality. He says,

While sex is a part of someone’s sexuality, we are not, and should not be, minimized to sex. It’s an important part of intimacy and it’s our right to love who we love — but we are not sex acts. Our sex lives or lack thereof shouldn’t be up for scrutiny by homophobic Christians or gay men. It seems one group of people will only affirm you if you’re not having sex and the other will only affirm you if you are.

His advocacy for gay celibate people in the gay community is noble. He continues,

We shouldn’t allow for a single narrative to represent our entire community. It is hard feeling represented when you’re a minority and even more so when you are marginalized within that minority group. Celibate gay individuals are still gay, they’re still attracted to people of the same sex, and they’re still facing discrimination for who they are. Sexually active or not, they are queer — so shouldn’t they feel safe and included in the LGBT community?

Forcing beliefs on another person, especially beliefs related to something as intimate as sex, crosses boundaries. It’s harmful, especially when specifically geared toward youth. But silencing celibate stories isn’t the solution. We should allow for people to come to their own educated conclusion.

The message here is very good. I think Cruz is specifically addressing the response of the gay community to celibate people (it hasn’t been terribly positive) and advocating for greater acceptance in the gay community. That is good. Everything I am about to say is not intended to negate his thesis or to disprove him, but instead to add another voice to the discussion.

While I agree that gay individuals who choose celibacy should be included in the gay community and their stories heard, I think Cruz might miss some of the complexity and subtlety of some of the issues he raises.

He says,

To be clear, there should be a distinction between forced celibacy and chosen celibacy. An informed adult who chooses celibacy should theoretically pose no threat. Regardless of whether they choose celibacy because they believe same-sex sex is a sin or if it’s part of their religious journey, celibacy is a personal decision that, quite literally, doesn’t involve anyone else.

Throughout the article, he seems to imply that, as long as someone’s conviction is a “personal choice” and they don’t advocate for Reparative Therapy, then our discomfort is needless. But I don’t necessarily believe this is true. I say that because morality almost never “doesn’t involve anyone else.” Morality is  never a solely private matter, no matter how much we may push religious conviction into the world of personal preference.

It is here that an important clarification should be made: there are, in my experience, two broad categories of celibate gay people. There are those who pursue celibacy because they believe that gay sex is universally sinful, and those who pursue celibacy because it is a personal choice, but not necessarily a universal mandate. Everything I am about to say mostly applies to the first category – those who are celibate because they believe gay sex is universally sinful for all people. In my personal experience, I know far more celibate gay people who fall into the first category rather than the second.

A moral choice of this kind – of believing that gay sex is universally sinful – is never a personal choice. We may work hard to conceal it, to respect others, or even to convince ourselves that it has nothing to do with other people’s lives. But if we believe that gay sex is universally condemned – that all who have it must repent and are committing a grave sin – then it isn’t personal. It involves the whole human race. It projects a standard of sexual conduct on every other human being, and we are truly blind if we believe that others won’t sense that and respond to it. We may not be “forcing” people to leave their gay relationships, or die to the possibility of future romantic love, but we are certainly casting them as morally corrupt and their relationships and guiding morals as second best if they don’t. That might not be coercion, but is is certainly not “a personal choice” on our part.

This is where the inherent conflict arises. Cruz is careful to make a distinction between chosen celibacy and forced celibacy. Cruz seems to celebrate the conservative church moving from a reparative therapy approach to a softer approach of celibacy. However, most of the church (and many celibate gay people) sees gay sex as an absolute moral evil. With such a conviction, the line between chosen and forced celibacy will become blurry, especially for young people. If a gay child grows up in a conservative home where celibacy is the only way he can live a morally upright life, he may not be forced or coerced into celibacy, but he does face the threat of losing validation, a sense of inclusion, and standing in his Christian community. The same is true of an adult gay person living in the church. It may not be forced, but it comes at a great price. And the gay person might experience that expectation as damaging, stunting, and no better than coercion. I certainly did.

The gay community may respond negatively to celibate gay people who hold to the traditional ethic because they don’t understand celibacy, but it might also be because they feel the inherent expectations. If someone believes gay sex is universally sinful, a myriad of unspoken messages are subconsciously communicated: if you don’t choose celibacy, you are sinning. I expect you to die to the hope of romance and partnership. You need to break up with your spouse of 30 years.

All of those are huge, scary, invalidating, hurtful messages, and they are all felt when a celibate gay person walks into the room. People will respond – they will be hurt, frightened, and invalidated by the inherent messages of your life. It doesn’t matter if it is a personal choice or not, because we know, instinctually, that morality is never personal.

I do believe that, if gay people choose a life of celibacy, they must have the freedom to choose that life. I do believe that it should be a private choice and that neither the church nor the gay community should pressure them. But, as long as the church believes that gay sex is universally sinful, I honestly wonder if that will ever fully be a reality. I would love to be proven wrong – I would love to see a theological articulation of the traditional ethic that does not inevitably result in an expectation or mandate (there is a very fine line between the two) of celibacy, but I don’t know if such a hope could be possible. (Edit as my friend Sarah at A Queer Calling pointed out, there are those for whom the expectation of the church and a call to obedience coincide. For them, celibacy is expected and a calling, or an act of obedience. Sarah seems to think that I did not include such a group of people in my original post, thereby furthering an unhelpful dichotomy of those who are forced into celibacy and those who are called. That might very well be true. I certainly know people who are responding to both to a sense of obedience and the teachings of the church. It is not my intention to overlook their experience. However, I also feel that their experience does not negate the fact that, for very many, the expectation of celibacy will be damaging, threatening, and invalidating, even though it is not directly “forced.”)

The answer to the question, “do celibate gay people have a place in the gay community” is a resounding yes, but it won’t be without discomfort. Maybe the best we can do is learn to be comfortable with the discomfort. After all, if there is discomfort between the “conservatives” and “liberals”, the Catholics and protestants, and all the other factions in the church, I hardly think disagreement in the gay community will be easy, either. I do think our shared identity, shared struggle, and (if we are Christian) shared commitment to Christ can supersede this inherent dissonance, but it won’t be without struggle. And maybe that’s the way it should be. The discomfort might, in the end, be beautiful, and very good for us.

Eliel Cruz concludes his piece by saying,

Straight people are celibate for religious reasons in all different religious denominations. A gay celibate Christian is no different. The LGBT community should not be afraid of these stories, nor attempt to silence or shame them. If someone’s story threatens your stance or belief system, your stance wasn’t that strong to begin with.

The comparison between straight people and gay people pursuing celibacy reveals, to me, some misunderstanding of the inherent inequality of heterosexual and homosexual celibacy in the church.  When straight people choose celibacy, they do so solely because of personal conviction; they are free to marry, but choose to remain single because they feel called to do so. By contrast, many gay Christians feel that this choice has been made for them and are celibate because society and faith expected them to conform to a certain standard of behavior. Rather than choose celibacy as a personal call, they chose to conform to the traditional ethic that has been presented to them as the only orthodox option.

It is the difference between choosing never to speak, and being expected never to speak because you are a woman. It is the difference between working a certain job because you chose to, and working that job because you are not white, and it was the only job you could get. There are certainly gay people who feel the personal conviction to be traditional and celibate rather than the coercion of others, but they seem to be the exceptions to the rule. Many gay Christians feel the inherent inequality and experience the expectation of celibacy as inherently demeaning towards gay people.

And yes, it might not be forced. But never, ever underestimate the power of expectation. I’ve watched societal expectation break people’s lives: women who were leaders, girls who were too masculine, boys who were too feminine, men who wanted to be stay at home dads instead of bread winners, introverts being told they should be extraverts, or vice versa. We don’t get to find comfort in the notion, “well at least we didn’t force them to be celibate.” That doesn’t keep our expectations from deeply hurting people.
Can I still agree with the message of Eliel Cruz’s piece? Absolutely. Celibacy is good, and people need to make their own moral and life choices. The gay community needs to find a place for celibate gay people. However, we also need to have some challenging and uncomfortable conversations, too, and that is beautiful. That is what it means to be the Church.

Noah, Living on The Edge, and the Sacrifice of Family

I have a confession: I loved the film Noah. When it came out several months ago, I saw it twice in theaters. I loved its cringeworthy moments; I loved its moments of transcendence; I loved the complicated themes it explored; I loved its visual beauty. I even loved the Jim Henson-esque rock angels. It is a rich, strange, complicated, quirky, alienating film – one that left me feeling awe-inspired, assaulted, and a bit confused all at the same time.

But I also loved it because, as a gay man, I saw myself in Russell Crowe’s Noah, and I resonated deeply with the themes of family, partnership, and fatherhood that are explored throughout the film. In other words, I loved the film for its own merits, but also because of how it spoke uniquely to me as a gay Christian man. Now, after having mulled it over for the past few months, I thought I would share my feelings on the film, and how it relates to my experience.

If you haven’t seen the film yet and intend to, I would encourage not reading past this point, as I spoil major plot points for the film.

Prior to the coming of the flood waters, Noah has a harrowing vision of humanity’s true nature, including his own. In a sequence that is almost Calvinistic, he comes face to face with the total depravity of the human race. In that moment, the boundaries he had built between his own family (peace loving, nature loving, caring for the earth and life) and the Line of Cain (violent, exploitative, destructive) breaks down. He realizes that there is no “us” and “them”, that there is only “us”. The human race is absolutely depraved, prone to violence and destruction, and he is no exception.

He thus comes to believe that his calling from The Creator is not just to save the guiltless of the earth – the animals – but to wipe out humanity entirely. He believes that, once he brings the animals on the ark to safety, he must ensure the extinction of the human race by making sure that no more human children are born, and that his family will be the last of the species.

This is a terrible, terrible burden for him to carry, and the scenes of the destruction of the human race are absolutely horrifying as Noah and his family sit in the darkness of the ark hearing the roar of the storm and the screams of the drowning.  As Noah understands it, he has taken on the role of accomplice to God in executing his entire species, and we watch as that crushes him.

The conflict comes when his own son and adopted daughter conceive, and she becomes pregnant. This is when Noah starts to rip at the seams, and when a truly classic Darren Aronofsky breakdown commences. When he discovers that his adopted daughter is pregnant, he races through the three levels of the ark, finally bursting out onto the deck to confront the raging storm, and cries out, “I can’t do this. This is too much. I can’t do this.” He knows that, if he follows his conviction and ensure the death of the human race, then he will have to kill his own grandchildren. In spite of his agony, he resolves that this is the only way forward; he must be obedient to his God, even if it means killing his own newborn grandchildren. (While this twist is obviously not in the biblical Noah story, it is consistent with other narratives and themes in the book of Genesis.)

The conflict that occurs on the ark is harrowing, heartbreaking. The family, on the edge of humanity’s existence,  carrying life on earth to safety, starts to break down and crumble.

Finally, Noah’s daughter gives birth to twin daughters. At this point, the film started to remind me of The Shining, as Noah – a now crazed and broken father – becomes the predator, trying to kill the most innocent members of his family.

The moment comes when he is holding his granddaughters in his arms, his knife raised to kill them. But he doesn’t. He can’t. He kisses them on the forehead instead. He limps away.

Some of the final scenes we see of Noah are of a broken, devastated man who has planted a vineyard and become drunk on the wine. He has carried out God’s impossible call on his life – he has overseen the destruction of the world – but he could not carry out his full conviction. He could not kill his granddaughters. He could do all else – he could build an ark, he could watch the death of his species and his world, but he could not do that. He believes that he has ultimately failed The Creator – that his deepest humanity has thwarted his destiny.

There is a redemptive ending to the story and to Noah’s character, but I won’t spoil it.

As I sat in the theater watching this story, I saw myself in the character of Noah. Like Noah, I was someone who was deeply committed to my faith, and to doing what was right. Like Noah, I was willing to make enormous sacrifices, and while those sacrifices cost me a great deal, none of them broke me. “You want me to become a missionary? Ok, God. You want me to put myself in harm’s way for the sake of the gospel? Ok, God. You want me to be celibate for the rest of my life? Ok, God.” And I was, and I suffered, and I did put myself in harm’s way. On the mission field, I did see violence, I did see death, and I did see trauma. Without going into great detail, the missions organization I worked with came under physical attack in our location. People were hurt, and two were killed. While it was horrific, and I deeply struggled for years after the experience, it didn’t break me. I won’t resort to simple clichés like saying, “it was all for God’s glory.” But, somehow, I did have a peace that kept me stable.

But then, I was faced with my own humanity. I met a man and fell deeply in love. For the first time, I started to understand what family would be like, and I started to understand what I was having to let go. After my relationship with my boyfriend fell apart, I confronted the reality that I did not previously understand.

Like Noah, as he stood there on the brink of killing his grandchildren, I was being asked to look at my future – a future with family, a future with children, a future with a partner – and kill it. I was killing them before they could even be known. I was killing them before I could ever get to kiss them, hug them, hear their voices or see their faces. I was killing my partner before I could ever touch him, or hold his hand, or get to know his soul. And like Noah, that broke me. That was my edge. I could do all else – I could go to remote parts of the world; I could vow never to have sex again, I could confront all the other rigors and commitments and pains of my life, but I could not confront that. If that was to be my fate, to grow old without finding a partner or raising a family, then I would grieve and I would face it. But to choose it – to choose to kill the possibility even before it could be born – that I could not do.

Like Noah, I walked away believing that I was a failure. The final scenes of Noah naked in his drunkenness, alone on the beach, feeling discarded and thwarted by his own humanity – a man who has failed God – that was me in the spring of 2013. I had been asked to kill my granddaughters – my future with a family – and I couldn’t.

It is terrifying to confront the reality that we have edges, that we have breaking points, and that there are lines which, if crossed, will shatter us in a way that may render us crippled indefinitely. As a culture, we don’t think about edges and consequently we don’t really believe in them. We don’t know what it looks like when humanity is pushed to the brink, and we don’t ever want to know. Because of this, we paradoxically believe we are invincible. We both fear and romanticize pain, martyrdom, and persecution. We have a romanticized view of suffering for the Lord, of having a “thorn in the side”, of being persecuted for our beliefs. In our naive invincibility, we hopefully quote the Apostle Paul: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (ESV)” all the while failing to see that many good, faithful and strong brothers and sisters are crushed, are driven to despair, and are destroyed, sometimes in pursuit of the God they believe loves them so ferociously.

We have strange breaking points: it was not watching the ferocious persecution and violence on the mission field that broke me. It was not grieving for my friends who lost their lives. It was not living with the regular nightmares and the PTSD. In the end, it was not violence or death that broke me. It was family.

What might be more terrifying is the discovery that The Edge exists no matter how great our strength, no matter how noble our resolve, and no matter how strong our faith. Every person has a breaking point – every person has a place where, if touched, their bones will break no matter how strong their muscles might be. For whatever reason – for whatever mysterious, painful, humiliating human reason – being asked to throw away my future family at the age of 24 was mine.

At Noah’s point of weakness – in his brokenness, his drunkenness, his despair – he encounters grace. He discovers a God who, though mysterious, though wrathful, though infinitely beyond humanity, is also tender, merciful, and understanding. In the past year of struggling and praying, I have encountered that same God – a God who made me with that fundamental, elemental need for family, and called it good, a God who made me with my humbling need for the hope of partnership and family, a God who knows that my driving need for love and deep connection is rooted in His very nature, for I am made in His image, a God who that my attraction to men does not destroy that image . I have come to know a God who knows my weaknesses, a God who weeps in the face of brokenness and pain. I may not have all the answers, and perhaps I never will, but what I do know is that I serve a God of tenderness and mercy, a God who made the very need for family that broke me. He is El Ro’i, the God who sees me. I serve a God who understands.

John Corvino on Sexual Identity

John Corvino recently wrote an excellent article on Commonweal titled “Thinking Straight?” in which he responds to a recent article on First Things. In the article, Corvino tackles the recent trend of traditional Christians trying to use queer theory to their own ends, and gives a very good lesson in queer theory in the process. I found it such a helpful article that I thought I would share it here for my readers. He begins:

A little queer theory can be a dangerous thing. At least that’s what one might conclude after observing social conservatives eagerly citing—and in the process, badly distorting—such theory to defend traditional ideas about sexuality. A recent and striking example is Michael Hannon’s essay “Against Heterosexuality” in First Things this past March. There Hannon argues that religious conservatives should embrace queer theorists’ view that sexual orientation is a social construction, rather than a natural and inevitable feature of persons. Furthermore, they should stop categorizing anyone as gay, because doing so organizes that person’s sexual identity around a particular temptation to sin, leading him to believe that he needs that sin in order to be fulfilled. Finally, and most important, they should stop categorizing anyone as heterosexual, because doing so lets people off the hook as “normal,” thus blinding them to their own sin. The general idea is that shedding these labels will enable people better to focus on the proper Christian grounding for sex and marriage.

As one commenter on my blog, Hypatia, recently it, this approach is “say away the gay,” now that “pray away the gay” has proven ineffective. John Corvino goes on to give an excellent clarification about what scholars mean when they say, “homosexuality did not exist as an orientation until the late eighteen-hundreds.” – a statement that has confounded many people.

To understand his argument, one must reach back about two decades to an esoteric academic debate between essentialists, who argued that sexual orientation is a natural, intrinsic, and trans-historical feature of persons, and social constructionists, who countered that sexual orientation is a cultural invention, and a relatively recent one at that. The debate was confusing, especially because the disputants often seemed to be talking past each other. Moreover, as the historian John Boswell noted, virtually no one actually claimed to be an “essentialist;” that label was simply used by constructionists to critique others’ views. In any case, few scholars today would deny the constructionists’ central claim: The way modern Westerners organize sexual identity, the way we categorize ourselves and others—gay, straight, and bisexual—is not universal. Those categories did not gain social salience until the late nineteenth century.

This claim is easily misunderstood. To say that these categories lacked social salience prior to the nineteenth century is not to say that there weren’t people who engaged in, and predominantly favored, romantic relationships with persons of the same sex. Of course there were. Nor is it to say that they and others didn’t recognize that some people had such preferences. Of course they did. (Aristophanes’ myth in Plato’s Symposium is often cited as evidence.) Nor is it to deny that their preference for the same sex might be strongly genetically influenced. One of the reasons the essentialist/constructionist debate proved so confusing is that it was often conflated with the nature/nurture debate that was raging simultaneously: Are people born gay (or straight, or bisexual), or are they made so through family or social influences? Those debates actually address distinct questions—essentialist/constructionist is about identity categories, whereas nature/nurture is about the etiology of sexual desire—but it’s easy to oversimplify them in such a way that makes them look more connected than they are.

An analogy may help (this one from the philosopher and legal theorist Edward Stein): Some people strongly prefer to sleep on their backs, others on their stomachs. Perhaps these preferences are genetically based, perhaps not. Perhaps they’re changeable; perhaps not. But the point is that no one divides the world into “backers” and “fronters” or grants such categories any social significance. According to the social constructionists, the common categories of sexual orientation (gay, straight, bisexual) used to be that way, too.

In other words, sexual orientation as an internal experience of romantic and erotic predisposition towards a certain sex did exist, but it did not exist in the scholarship or literature of the Western world, nor was society aware of it and divided into various categories because of it. As a psychological concept it had hidden, dormant, and as a social construct it had not yet been developed. That does not mean that sexual orientation, in it’s most basic form, did not exist.

He concludes with some powerful thoughts on what the world might be like for us if Hannon’s vision were fulfilled:

there’s nothing funny about the Hannon piece—indeed, it’s scary. For Hannon makes clear exactly what these social conservatives ultimately want. It’s not merely to deny same-sex couples the freedom to marry. It’s not merely to refuse to do our wedding photography or to bake our cakes. It’s not even merely to push gay-identified people back into the closet, although that’s an essential—and sufficiently frightening—first step in Hannon’s dismantling fantasy.

What they want is nothing less than to dismantle the very vocabulary by which we express and realize our inchoate longings for intimacy. They want to push us back to a time when homosexuality was not merely the “love that dare not speak its name,” but the love that could not speak it. They want to restore a regime where the boy with the funny feeling might—if he’s lucky—grow up to have a good-enough heterosexual marriage, but he might just as easily grow up to have a lonely life of furtive, dangerous same-sex encounters.

The old regime died because it was cruel and inhumane. Hannon seems to hope that, by not naming our reality, he can make it go away. He’s badly wrong about that, and thankfully so.

Be sure to read the full article.

When Morality and Experience Clash

Over the past year, as I have struggled to sort through what I believe about my sexual orientation and how I am to live, I have come up against a conflicting conundrum. This dissonance is, specifically, how the traditional ethic articulates itself, and this articulation of the traditional ethic makes me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. It’s important to note that I’m neither a theologian nor a scholar, so my opinions may not be the most theologically informed or sound, but I do believe that these apprehensions are a subconscious current in many people’s lives, so I will go ahead and express them, even if they are faulty.

The traditional articulation that I am referring to can be summed up in the words of Wesley Hill in a response to James Brownson,

According to the christological meaning of Genesis 2:24 given in Ephesians 5:32, the difference between male and female becomes not incidental to the meaning of marriage but essential. God established marriage, Ephesians suggests, in order that it might be a sign ( mysterion ;  sacramentum ) of Christ’s love for the Church. In order for this parable to “work,” the  difference  between the covenant partners is required. The relationship between man and woman is here “related over and above itself to an eternal, holy, and spotless standing before God, in the love of the incarnate Christ for his bride, which is the Church” . . . Or, to borrow Karl Barth’s language, marriage is a  parable , and for the parable to communicate its truth effectively requires certain kinds of characters, certain kinds of  bodies , and not others.

In other words, the prohibition on gay intimacy has to do with a grand, cosmic symbol. It has to do with aligning our lives, as little metaphors, with the motions of more fundamental principalities. According to some, the fundamental image of the union of Christ and the Church breaks down in the context of Gay marriage because, for the metaphor to work, there must be different types of characters (i.e. male and female) to fully represent the differences between God and the church. (For a fascinating breakdown of this argument, see Brownson’s response to Wesley Hill’s critique of his book.)

My intuition tells me that this symbol-based morality has some unforeseen complications for the church. I think that,  at an instinctual level, symbol-based morality only makes sense when coupled with a pragmatism grounded in the fruit of our actions in our embodied lives. I believe that, generally speaking, people understand morality because of the consequences it bears in our lives. Experience (both individually and communally) testifies to the wrongness of an action. Adultery, murder, stealing, coveting, etc. all have negative consequences for our lives. The real-life implications of sin suggest that God’s rules are not arbitrary, but are in fact deeply ingrained as laws in human nature and the cosmos that help maintain peace, order, and goodness. The symbolism and theoretical aspects of sin may help make sense of why certain behaviors are destructive, but the symbolism causes dissonance for most people when it is uncoupled from the fruit of our actions – when the “sin” is unrecognizable from that which we deem to be good.

And this is precisely where we run into the conflict: more and more people are discovering that there is no “bad fruit” of being gay, or even having a gay marriage. Very often, the fruit is, in fact, very good: love, monogamy, faithfulness, and service. People are discovering that the children of gay marriages are, generally speaking, as happy and healthy and stable as other children. People are, in short, experiencing a conflict between symbol and experience. It’s a dissonance that is getting louder, and will not be going away anytime soon.

This is partly why, I think, the far right insist that gayness is destructive for the individual and society. For all their antics, there might be a subconscious wisdom to their words: they know that, on a cultural level, the symbolism of morality loses its meaning if that symbolism is not backed up by real-life consequences. The prohibition against gay marriage will become meaningless for the vast majority of people if it bears good fruit. I believe some people cling to believing that the fruit of homosexuality is destructive, despite the evidence, because they sense on an intuitive level that, if they were to concede that there is no bad fruit, they will effectively decapitate their own theology.

There are some serious problems with this. As someone who is gay and lives surrounded by gay people, I have seen firsthand how this dissonance between symbol and experience is crippling the church’s ability to speak authoritatively to a generation. When we tell a gay 15 year old who has just come out of the closet that he must die to the possibility of having a marriage, sexual intimacy, a partner, or children with a partner because of a distant, theoretical, and ancient symbolic structure that has no connection to his life in any meaningful way, we lose the ability to speak into his life. If he cannot connect the prohibition against experiencing love, monogamy and family with another man to something tangible in his life, then our faith, church, and religion will fade into meaningless for him.

What’s communicated is that the Christian God cares more about symbolic metaphors than about real love, commitment, monogamy and experiences. A morality divorced from consequence will be meaningless and antithetical to a culture starved for meaning. The impression left on my generation is that the Christian God is like the aging god Nuggen from Terry Pratchet’s novel Monstrous Regiment, who, in his senility, arbitrarily declares rocks, women, clams and the color blue abominations. Certainly, there might be a few individuals who resonate with the symbolism of marriage despite the witness of experience, but I believe the church may lose a generation and a culture because of the dissonance.

There is an even deeper dissonance and discomfort buried here. This conflict between symbol and experience essentially strips people of autonomy, and makes them feel morally and intellectually helpless. I believe that a generation feels it is being asked by the church to ignore the evidence of their experience and choose to believe that homosexuality is sinful anyway, not allowing them to recalibrate their understanding of Scripture with experience. This places us in a terrifying position: if we cannot be informed by our experience on this matter, how are we not completely morally helpless? How can we truly discern any kind of morality or truth? How are we not the blind, hapless dependants of a religious structure, depending on a “higher authority” to inform every aspect of our moral lives? How can we know anything if we are to simply rely on the church’s teaching on this matter despite the good fruit we see in the lives of gay people?

And how can I use my experience to declare anything right or wrong? If I can’t be informed by the good fruit of gay people’s lives, then how can I look at the life of a friend who is a drug addict and say, based solely on the witness of experience, that her drug addiction is immoral and that she should stop?

In other words, I believe that the church’s teaching of morality and symbolism that is increasingly disregarding of and detached from the experiences of numerous people is causing a subtle panic. It is a panic that might be subconscious, a panic that may have become so persistent but quiet that it is now unnoticeable, having seeped into the landscapes of peoples’ lives. But it is still there, and if you spend a substantial amount of time with my generation, you start to feel its persistence. It isn’t going to go away, and the Church needs to have the courage to engage with it.