As I’ve told my story of failure and wounding within a commitment to lifelong celibacy – and how I have eventually walked away from it – the most common response from conservative Christians has been withering. The vast majority of them who have responded on social media and the blogosphere have been singing variations of, “so what you are saying is that you cannot live without sex.” When they hear me say that Side B (the traditional view of gay marriage) crushed me, they assume that’s because I can only conceive of intimacy as a sexual act, that I have an idolatrous view of romance, and that I see sex and romance as the most fulfilling experience on earth. They also assume that I have a misplaced understanding of community and friendship.
This reductionist view of gay love is described well by my friend Aaron who commented on my blog,
In college I once expressed doubts about the feasibility of the Side B position, to which one of my fellow students responded, “Really, Aaron? What you’re saying is you can’t live without sex?!” At the moment I felt so dehumanized. I know for a fact that she had long desired to have a husband for reasons that I’m sure went beyond mere carnal pleasure. But when it came to my desires it was just sex. I think many conservatives think of us this way; as sinners addicted to sex. From that perspective we are little more than animals in heat who are unhappy we can’t indulge ourselves. It reminds me of a question posed to a lesbian from a woman grieving over the recent death of her husband: “Do your people feel sad when your partner dies?”
To which she responded, “You see me as a little less human, and for me to realize it, breaks my heart.”
While I understand where these assumptions are coming from, they are all wrong. I voiced such opinions myself, once upon a time, but I now believe they are deeply destructive in our conversations about sexuality. I believe they are fundamentally reductionist, dehumanizing, and belittling to something I now recognize as central to human experience and representative of God’s image.
When I say that the commitment to lifelong celibacy crushed me, I am not saying that the prospect of never having sex crushed me. Frankly, that was, for me, always the easier part of practicing celibacy. I’ve never lost sleep over never having sex, because I believe sex to be just one of a myriad of beautiful experiences we can have in this life (but there is no shame if you have lost sleep over that prospect.) Don’t get me wrong – sex is awesome, but no sexual experience I’ve ever had has compared to that time I heard Ombra Mai Fu performed by a children’s symphony choir.
Romance is similar. While “being in love” is a magnificent, dazzling, astonishing experience, it is not the be all and end all of life. It is a priceless gift, but no more than the gift of music, or the gift of solitude, or the gift of literature, or the gift of fatherhood. I love being in love – I love the oxytocin and dopamine, I love that God gave it to us as one of the most powerful drugs on earth, but I also recognize that the greatest temptation of romance is idolatry. Its sheer power in the moment tempts us to let it eclipse all other loves and pleasures. While I would be a bit sad if I never experienced that rush of romance again, that lack would not make my life any less meaningful, beautiful, or livable.
I believe that, when we reduce someone’s struggles with lifelong celibacy to sex or romance, we are missing the mark. We are also guilty of reinforcing our culture’s over-preoccupation with sex and romantic experience. I believe the struggle of mandatory lifelong celibacy reveals a much deeper place within the human heart – a place established by God in the beginning, that is inseparable from what it means to be human.
In the creation account, we are told that God recognized that it was not good for man to be alone, so He declared, “I shall make him a helper.” From Adam’s rib, He crafted Eve – his companion and help. I believe that the need for a helper goes deeper than sex, and the volatile and temporary cocktail of chemicals we call romance. When I tell the story of how the prescription of gay celibacy crushed me, I am not telling the story of how I was finally crushed by the prospect of never again experiencing romance or having sex. I am telling the story of how I recognized that my burning passion for a helper was not something I could ever “get over”, but was something put there by God Himself as he crafted the human spirit. I was crushed that I would never, ever be allowed to experience it, or pursue it. I believe when many people say they are not “cut out for celibacy,” this is what they mean. I also believe this might be what Paul meant when he said it is better for a man to marry than to burn with passion. It certainly has to do with libido, but I also believe it has to do with a deeper need for a help-mate.
This is not to say that this help-mate love – what I will call Eros – is any greater or less than any other love, because all the Loves are representative of how God loves us. I believe friendship holds just as important a place, and can be just as great an experience of intimacy. It is a different kind of intimacy, though. I no longer believe that one can replace the other – that is like saying our need for food can satisfy our thirst for water. In their most transcendent states, Eros and friendship and motherhood or fatherhood are transfigured into selfless, agape love, and in this way they are all similar. I no longer believe, though, that transcendence rids us of categories – those categories are there for a reason.
A cursory look at history will tell us that Eros love is as old as humanity and part of our nature: what is a central theme of almost every Shakespeare play? Eros love. What has inspired wars and blood feuds and betrayals? Eros. What has given inspiration to some of the greatest poems, songs, plays and novels in our history? Eros. What has an entire book of the Bible dedicated to it? Eros. What has been the catalyst for some of the deepest anguish men and women have ever experienced? Eros. We sing for Eros, we break for Eros, we create for Eros, we fight for Eros. We have since our beginnings, and we expect we shall till our end.
So when we deny Eros love to a population the size of a country, let’s not deceive ourselves. Let’s not say it’s simpler or easier than it is, by reducing the human experience of companionship to sex or romance.
“But there is no guarantee of success, or fulfillment within Eros,” I’ve heard many people say, “there is no guarantee of finding any happiness in partnership. It isn’t an escape to a life of fullness and pleasure. Marriage is very hard.”
This is true. I no longer believe, though, that when people long for the opportunity to be Side A, that they are merely searching for an escape hatch into a painless Elysium. When I hold someone’s hand and listen to them weep over how deeply they wish they could allow themselves the opportunity to experience gay love, I don’t think they are weeping for the opportunity to have a beautiful romance and an awesome sex life.
I believe they are weeping for the opportunity to have a broken heart as well. I believe they are weeping for the risk of failure, for the risk of devastation. They weep to have the opportunity to experience both fulfillment and suffering within the context of Eros love. Because Eros isn’t just about living happily ever after, it’s about waking up after a breakup and wondering if you will ever live again. It’s about searching and searching, but never finding someone to spend your life with. It’s about watching your marriage rip apart at the seams.
If that sounds crazy – who would ever wish such pain upon themselves? – I think that speaks to the nature of the human heart. People want to live, and living means the risk of tragedy. I believe it is human nature to want to live within the context of Eros, and living means shattering anguish as well as joy. In the aftermath of my breakup – a breakup that tore my entire life asunder and forced me to take two months off – I grieved for the fact that Side B theology denied all gay people this sort of crucible. It was a horrible experience that I would not wish on a single human soul, but I also recognized that to deny any human being such experience was wrong.
It is one thing to be offered the opportunity to live within the context of Eros, but then choose to deny it. We call this celibacy (which is different from chastity or singleness) and it is a good, beautiful, and vital thing. Like the martyr, the celibate person chooses to die to Eros love so that something else may live. It is an entirely different experience never to have the choice.
I can only describe this experience of prescribed celibacy as being drawn and quartered. Without even a moment to discern whether I was called to celibacy or not, it felt as though this part of my being – the burning passion to live within Eros love – was ripped from my soul and put in an inaccessible place, because it was too sinful, too dangerous to touch. I did everything I knew to do to cope with that pain – I prayed, I studied, I exercised, and I developed intensely meaningful friendships with people who became like family to me. I armored myself in an impenetrable intellectualism that could justify what I was doing against every pang of hurt, loneliness and confusion. I developed a prayer life, knowing that only my Father in Heaven could fulfill me and empower me to live a life of celibacy. I told myself that I was denying myself romance and sex, and that of course I could live without those things.
In such an experience, the line between God as horrific abuser and God as loving disciplinarian faded. It became impossible to tell one from the other. It also became hard to trust God as good, to rest in Him, or respond to Him as a loving Abba. How do I throw my burdens on Him when He was the one who gave the decree for my drawing and quartering in the first place, apparently out of love? How can I rest in His love when His love commands that I experience such deep tearing?
If you hold to the traditional perspective on gay marriage, do not reduce people’s longings for sacramental marriage to idolatry of romance or an obsession with sex. Do not belittle, reduce, or dehumanize. Instead, look Eros love in the eyes and recognize it for what it is: a facet of human nature and central to human experience, placed there by God himself. If you ask the entire gay community to throw that part of themselves away, do so with tears, do so with sorrow, and do so with fear and trembling. Anything less does not communicate love to God’s children.