“Gay in Christ” Conference at Notre Dame

I wish I could have been at this conference.  Reports coming out of the conference are sparse so far, some of them rather obscure and slapdash, others lighthearted to the point of being offensive.  The key question surrounding all such discussions, these days, seems to be whether it is best to describe oneself as “gay” and encourage others to do the same.  This discussion seems like a red herring, to me.  Let me explain.

Those who support Christian sexual ethics have more uniting them than dividing them.  We have to be very clear on that.  The devil can use mistaken terminology and mistaken theology to oppose Christian holiness, but that does not mean that the people with mistaken terminology or mistaken theology are on the “other side”.  I see a lot of aggressiveness about this terminological issue, but I’m not convinced the aggressiveness is appropriate, on either side.  Jesus turned over the tables of those who made his house a laughingstock, not those who misunderstood the Torah.

Chaste people who support identifying as gay are either: (A) correct, (B) wrong and deluded, or (C) wrong and devious.  Some people think C is the right answer, and think that Spiritual Friendship is gay group poised to infiltrate Christian churches and change their teachings.  That view is silly.  No one would choose to endure the abuse SF folks get leveled at them from the gay community, if they were ultimately pawns for the gay community.  The devil is devious, and may attempt to co-opt the “chaste gay” movement, but the people themselves are sincerely seeking truth and goodness.

The remaining options are A and B.  The argument for B is simple:

1.  Calling oneself gay involves identifying oneself with either a sin or a temptation.

2.  It is wrong to identify oneself with a sin or a temptation.

3.  Therefore, it is wrong to call oneself gay.

Usually, SF-type folks resist this argument by denying Premise #1.  They say that there is a meaning for “gay” that is completely disassociated with sin or temptation.  Nevertheless, if one were to ask them what qualifies a person as gay, I think — to a man — they would say that it is a necessary condition that a gay person be sexually/romantically attracted to the same sex.  Thus, if they want to argue that a person can be gay without experiencing sinful temptation, they must find explanation for why God would gift someone with a sexual/romantic attraction the following of which would involve sin.  This seems to me a Herculean task — trust me, I’ve tried my hand to solving the problem, and I always run up against a brick wall.

I think the better tack to take would be to attack Premise #2.  But of course, #2 is a pretty strong premise.  The only argument I see against #2 is what you might call the “alcoholics anonymous” argument.  It’s a consequentialist argument, and it claims that the benefits of “identifying” as an alcoholic outweigh the harms, because identifying as an alcoholic is instrumental in healing from the damaging effects of one’s disposition to alcohol.  Just so, admitting “I am gay” might, for some people, give them the capacity to flee from sin in a way they never have before.

This is hardly the sort of argument most gay-describing people (chaste or not) generally want to hear.  They might respond that I am trying to introduce guilt trips and make them feel inferior in some way — after all, alcoholism is an addiction, and they don’t see being gay as anything like that.

But this is where I think God wants faithful Christians to push.  The problem is not with identifying as gay; it is with identifying as gay, with the idea that being gay is a fundamentally good thing.  I would say to gay folks that YOU are good, YOU are irreplaceable and awesome and a tremendous masterpiece made by the living God.  But “the gay” — as Julie Rodgers calls it — is not part of the goodness that is you.  It is an accretion — maybe an accretion that will never go away, maybe an accretion that (like Paul’s thorn) allows you to glorify God — but an accretion nonetheless.  If telling yourself that you are “gay” makes it easier for you to act in ways that glorify God, by all means, tell yourself you are “gay”.

(My attack on #2 fails, by the way, if we are expressly forbidden — biblically or otherwise — from identifying by temptations.  I don’t know of any such blanket prohibition, but there may be one).

Once we get #2 out of the way, though, we still aren’t out of the woods.  This is because of 1 Cor. 1:8, concerning the knowledge that it is permissible to eat sacrificed meat:

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.  When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

Here’s what I get out of the passage: it would remain a scandal to describe oneself as gay, in situations where people would consider such an identification to involve oneself in sin.  If you walk around calling yourself gay, your nephew might be inclined to do the same (if he has the relevant attractions), and your nephew might not distinguish chaste from unchaste.

Again, this will get me into trouble with many people.  “If other people have bad reactions to me calling myself gay, that’s their problem, not mine.”  But THAT is an un-Christian attitude.  We are in charge of protecting other people’s consciences from the appearance of sin.  Does this mean that you can’t tell your close friends — who “get” it — that you’re gay?  No, you can do that — just as Christians probably ate sacrificed meat together sometimes, apparently.  But it means that you shouldn’t publicize being gay to the world at large, probably.

These are my thoughts, not yours.  And I say them knowing my own ignorance and my own sin.  I am likely to be wrong about much of this.  But I have thought very hard on these issues, and I very much desire to find the truth.

What do you, dear reader, think?

Notre Dame prof on “same-sex attracted” versus “gay”

I am always looking for good reasons for or against people identifying as “gay”.  Dr. John Cavadini, from Notre Dame, recently said the following, which pretty much summarizes the best argument I’ve heard FOR using the language of sexual orientation.  I have a lot of sympathy for what Cavadini is saying here.

 

Suppose you have a kid who tells you they are “gay.” You try to convince him that he is “struggling with same-sex attraction.” He says, “No, I’m not, I’m gay, and I know the Church is anti-gay and I intend to leave the Church as soon as I am able.” I have seen this scenario worked out with friends of mine, with parents who are good conservative Catholics, and indeed their kid(s) have left the Church and remain hostile.

What if there were someone in the parish, self-identified as “gay,” and was public about agreeing with Church teaching on marriage. I would, if it were my kid, immediately send him to talk to this person. Someone like this person, who apparently has resources for defending Church teaching and can provide support and advice for someone, showing that it is possible for people to be this way and live this way faithfully in the Church, that there are options here, including the option of marriage (meaning as the Church understands it), and including the option of not running your life as though your sexual orientation was in fact your whole identity. 

I think that such a person, self-identified as “gay,” and also equally self-identified as defending Church teaching, has something to offer, a gift, and I wonder if the Church is very good at receiving this gift. It seems that this is a way of helping someone who “struggles with same-sex attraction,” if by “helping” you mean, helps them to live according to Church teaching.

I think the option of a self-identified gay Catholic who is living according to Church teaching, defending it, and becoming more holy and loving in doing so, can be a great asset in the Church, without also going so far as to say, this is the paradigm for everyone, or that this exhausts the strategies that the Church should have. I think this is one strategy that could be very helpful and am, with this conference, trying to explore it more fully. It is not, and cannot be, the only strategy.

Useless Desires

Every day I take a bitter pill that gets me on my way / For all the little aches and pains the ones I have from day to day / To help me think a little less about the things I miss / To help me not to wonder how I ended up like this / And the sky turns to fire /  against a telephone wire / And even I’m getting tired of useless desires. – Patty Griffin

Useless desires.  That’s what these are.

What good comes from my desire to be intimate with another man?  That question is almost so embarrassing I won’t even put it on an anonymous blog — and yet it is a question that colors my prayer life.  What is the POINT, God?  Why are these stupid things here?

It’s like my dad told me to cut the lawn, and gave me a trimmer, a lawnmower, and an automatic rifle.  My dad’s not one to make mistakes about these things, but what on earth am I supposed to do with the damn gun?  It’s useless.

But even that’s not quite right.  As I look around me, I realize that my desires are useful.  The kinds of desires I have can be used to separate parents and children, to drive young men into hedonism and heedlessness, to rip apart husbands and wives, to destroy, and destroy, and destroy some more.  The gun comparison is apt.  This sort of sexual passion is powerful.

And yet, Saint Paul says:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I don’t understand why this desire is here, no more than I understand cancer, no more than I understand hurricanes.  But I do rest in the promise that I am not capable of giving, the promise given to me, that in this — as in all things — I am “more than a conqueror” if I submit myself to the will of the living God.

Patty Griffin sings about taking a “bitter pill” that “helps me not to wonder how I ended up like this”.  I’ve tasted that pill, and seen the world through pill-colored glasses.  It’s a bit like being in the Matrix.  Cypher says, “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?  Ignorance is bliss.”

But you know what?  Ignorance is hell on me, and hell on those around me.  To live in a fantasy world where my desire isn’t useless, where it becomes the fulcrum of my life, where I somehow existentially “embue” it with meaning — that would mean abandoning my daddy, my brother, my precious God, who wants, more than anything, my good.  Make my desire useless, Lord, that I myself might be used by You.

The Prodigal Son – a new translation

I read ancient Greek, and I am a prodigal son.  Combining those two vocations, I have created the following, my own translation of the Prodigal Son story, in Luke 15.  Pay special attention to the portion in italics, which is often undertranslated…

 

Now he told them a story about a man with two sons.  The younger son said to their father, “Dad, please give me, right away, my portion of the inheritance.”  So he divided his living among them.  Hardly a day had passed before the younger son collected it all and went on vacation to a faraway land, and there he frittered away his property in a life of dissipation.  When all of it was gone, a great famine took possession of that place – and, for his own part, he entered into a time of indescribable longing.  So he journeyed again, and was taken up by a citizen of that country, who assigned him the task of tending swine of his field.  His stomach yearned to eat these pods, the food of swine, and yet nobody would allow him even that.

Coming to his senses, he said, “How many of my dad’s employees have more bread than they could ask 1for, and here I am wasting away from hunger!  I will stand up and make the journey back to my father, and I will ask him, “Dad, I have sinned against the sky and against you, and I am no longer fit for the lot of a son.  Treat me as though I was one of your employees.”  So he got up and went to his father’s house.

While he was yet a long way off, his dad saw him coming and was shaken to his core with a deep wellspring of emotion.  He ran to him, threw his arms around him, and began showering him with kisses.  Now the son told him, “Dad, I have sinned against the sky and against you, and I am no longer fit for the lot of a son.  Treat me as though I was one of your employees.”  But his dad said to the workers, “Quick, get out the finest vest, and get the boy dressed, and put a ring on his finger, and get some shoes on his feet, and bring out the fattened calf – offer it up on the altar, so that we can eat rejoicing!  And this is why: because this boy of mine was dead but he has come back to life, he was lost but now is found!”

Just so, the party began.

 

Dirty Rotten Lies and the Dirty Rotten Sinners Who Tell Them

I grew up with Sarah McLachlan music.  She is tremendously subtle musician, but her theology is not very good at all.  The poverty of her theology struck home today as the following words sang out from my IPad this morning:

Cause we are born innocent / Believe me, Adia,

We are still innocent. / It’s easy.

We all falter. / It doesn’t matter.

I listened to these lyrics in the context of learning, two days ago, that a friend of mine from way back is serving a 12 year sentence in prison for doing something VERY stupid.  I haven’t talked to him in years, but I knew back then that he was capable of such stupidity.  He was looking for help, and I was among those trying to help him.

Some of those conversations we had were through messaging online, and I still have the transcripts.  Going back through those transcripts over the past couple days, I have been struck both by two things: (1) my friend’s sincere love of God and desire for goodness, and (2) my friend’s conviction that it’s God’s job to forgive us.  I’m happy to say that I encouraged #1, but I’m sad to say that some things I said might have encouraged #2, as well.

It’s not God’s job to forgive us.  Whether or not we born innocent, we are no longer innocent.  And that means something has to change.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a term for the idea that God will just go on forgiving us, and all we need to do is “love” Him: cheap grace.  His point is that grace that doesn’t cost me anything, that doesn’t make me change, that doesn’t make me come face to face with my ugliness and sin, is worthless.  Or rather: that’s not God’s grace.  That is “grace” that comes straight from the devil.  We go to Church and worship God with great enthusiasm, and then we receive absolution from the gates of Hell.

This sort of absolution is more like a rubber stamp than an eraser.  We say “Your will be done” with our lips, but in our hearts we add “… but not yet.”  There is nothing more natural than this, and nothing more toxic either.  I’d much rather be an atheist who trembles before the law than a Christian who drinks the devil’s Artificially Graced Kool Aid.

And yet how easy this is to forget!  Oh, sure, we recognize that “those” people need radical conversions: people like murderers or rapists or thieves or racists or the like.  But us?  God is happy to forgive us for our “little” and “habitual” sins, our sins that “don’t harm” anyone.  But that was how my friend felt those many years ago.  He was trying to do the right thing.  He felt righteous, because he brought his failings before God.  But his habits, his “little” sins – these were things he was not willing to part with, and it was God’s job to forgive them.  (“I mean, honestly, God, it’s the least you can do.  Think of all the sins I want to commit, but I resist!  I deserve a little love.”)

I pray for my friend, that his time in prison will be a time of conversion and repentance.  But I am under no illusions that he is “still” innocent.  He is not, I am not, you are not.  Sarah McLachlan said “It’s easy”, but it’s not.  Our faults cement our character.  In the end, we are either providers like our Heavenly Father, or murderers like our earthly one.

I will close with a much better song, one by my favorite band, Andi and I:

Harder. / You said “harder than hell”.

But hell’s so easy. / You just stop caring and you’re there,

And there ain’t nothing you can do about it.

No, harder. / Harder than hell, harder than life.

Hard is the kingdom of God.

Why Desire Is a Bad Word

In Christian circles, you’ll often find people who don’t understand how one could be “gay” or “same-sex attracted” without sinning.  In their minds, being “attracted” implies “desiring”, and desiring is an act of the will.  Just as it is simple enough not to desire my friend’s fancy car, it is simple enough not to desire other people of the same sex.  On this view, then, all same-sex attraction is volitional.

Now I think this view is entirely false, but it is false in a very interesting and instructive way.  The problem is with the sentence “Desiring is an act of the will.”  In English, this CAN be true.  When I desire God, for example, it is certainly something that vitally involves my will.  Indeed, I don’t think it is imaginable to desire God passively.  (This would be something like a woman saying she desires her husband, even though all she does is lie in bed waiting to be “acted upon”.  That’s not desire; it’s more like “being willing”, which is not the same thing.)

But desiring, in English, is not only an act of the will.  It’s also something that can be experienced completely passively.  When I smell coffee, I desire it, even though I am not disposed to DO anything about that desire — for various unfortunate reasons that I won’t go into here.

The problem is simple: the English language sucks.  In English we cannot distinguish between passive and active desire in any meaningful way, without using tons of other words.  Greek is much better, in this respect.  When you read the New Testament in the Greek, the Greek is always 100% clear about whether the relevant desiring is active or passive.  In the New Testament, it is possible to passively be disposed to the good, but actively will evil (this happens in Romans 7).  Or it is possible to passively undergo evil, but actively will good.  And so on.

It would be SO helpful for our discussions of sexuality if we understood these distinctions.  The passive experience of desire is not something a person chooses, in any sense of the word “choose”.  My desire for men is nothing like the average person’s desire for money.  It is not something that I “plan” on or “decide” to will.  It is perfectly passive.

Indeed, this is the point of the Incarnation.  God became passive so that man might become active; which is to say, “God became man so that men might become gods”.  And this is precisely the message of Jesus Christ to gay people: “The devil has chosen you to submit to your passions, but I am empowering you to transcend your passions and choose me instead!”

Note how different this is from the message some Christians send: “You have are allowing yourself to desire these things, and you need to stop doing so.”  This message has a grain of truth, because the sinner does – in practice – participate in his own captivity.  But that is not how sin begins.  Sin begins passively.  The word “tempt” in the New Testament is the Greek word “peiro”, the same root that we find in the English word “experience”.  The word means “to be tested” or “to undergo”.  No word in the Greek language is more evocative of passivity – indeed, the only word that approaches it is the word “pascho”, which is the word from which we derive the notion of Christ’s passion.  When Christ is tempted in the wilderness, Christ becomes passive, so that he might – by passing the test – become active.  When Christ contemplates his crucifixion in the Garden, he is fully passive in the face of his emotions, so that he might – by undergoing that experience with patience – actively choose the loving action of sacrificing himself for us.

When anyone experiences sexual temptation, in the same way, he or she becomes passive.  This is not unfortunate, for it is precisely the occasion of the choice to actively accept the will of God, to become active like God Himself is active.  Through resisting temptation, we become like God our Father, for God is pure activity, and nothing can be passive in him.

None of this means that passions are bad, as such.  Passions that tend toward good are good, passions that tend toward evil are bad.  We pray that God spare us the test, but we do not pray that God spare us any emotion whatsoever.  Passive emotions like affection and disgust have their place in motivating virtuous behavior.  Nevertheless, one day they will no longer be needed in order to motivate us toward goodness, and in that day we will be active like God himself is active.

I am reminded of that beautiful hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”: Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father / There is no shadow of turning with Thee / Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not / As Thou has been Thou forever will be.

Passion – passive desire – is precisely this: a shadow of turning.  Active desire is turning, whether turning toward sin or turning toward the living God.

When we make the mistake of thinking passive desire is active desire, we run the risk of condemning others (or ourselves) unjustly.  But we can make the opposite mistake, by thinking that active desire (i.e. lust) is passive desire, and thereby excuse our sins under the mistaken belief that they are involuntary.  Both these mistakes are relics of a very unhelpful English word: desire.

Or rather, perhaps the causal connection goes the other way.  Perhaps we forgot the distinction between passivity and activity first, and then our language got confused later.

Desire of the Everlasting Hills

The following is a beautiful movie that tells a story about men who long for other men, and women who long for other women — but above all, about men and women who long for something more.  As C.S. Lewis said, “If we find in ourselves desires that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most sensible conclusion is that we were not made for this world.”