I was honored to give the following remarks at the Spiritual Friendship pre-conference. There may be minor variations between the video and the text. I learned much from the other presenters, and especially would commend Johana Finegan’s exceptional defense of Spiritual Friendship and Revoice.
Speaking rightly about the Christian formation of sexual desire requires first speaking about something other than sex. Desires are shaped by our theological and communal practices; to consider sexual desire outside this broader context misconstrues it from the outset. I take this to be the heart of the Augustinian legacy on moral formation: sexual desires are fundamentally about something deeper than or more transcendent than sex itself. Because of this, chastity requires the reorientation or transposition of the fires that animate sexual passion, rather than their extinction. Pace C.S. Lewis, it is not that the pornography addict’s desires for sex are too strong, but that his other desires are too weak—the intense longing for an immediate consummation is only the lowest form of what is meant to be a more radiant and enduring love. Chastity in our youth allows us to enjoy the full flowering of fidelity as we age—which is often a sexless intimacy founded upon years of life together. This form of love is foreign to many of us, children as we are of the divorce generation—but it is deeper and more powerful than the intensity of sexual passion that occupies so much of our attention in youth.
The appropriate formation of our sexual desires, then, begins in an explicitly non-sexual key. The emergence of a sexual desire for a particular person is the culmination of a long train of reasoning, the premises of which are mostly invisible to us and the control over which is largely indirect. The path toward ordering such desires toward God’s love begins, then, with posing the question of whether it is sex and its pleasures that they aim at—or whether the sexual desire is an echo or reflection, of a deeper and more profound longing for intimacy and love that sexual union can only imperfectly anticipate.
Assessing the formation of our sexual desires within a broader context holds both promise and peril for gay Christians, at least to this observer and (I hope) friend. Such a stance helpfully reveals that the questions surrounding sanctifying sexual desire are no different for gay Christians than anyone else—and their answers are not particularly interesting. For all the constructive attempts to ‘make room’ in our churches for gay Christians, the actual path toward sanctification seems almost tediously boring. A life immersed in Scripture and the practices of the church is the only reliable bulwark against infidelity. Regular communion, contemplative prayer, occasional fasting from food, the daily nourishment of Scripture, and other ascetical and communal practices are the authorized means of cultivating sanctity in the privacy of our bedrooms—and, though it is much more challenging, within the privacy of our hearts.
This deflationary attitude toward sexual desire is comprehensive, in that it includes desire’s fallen dimensions and its natural ordering. Our lives and world show, if anything, that God has a forbearance toward sin that we are reluctant to imitate. It is impossible to be more exacting than our Savior about the scope of our sanctification—but it is possible to demand such perfection faster than He does. The tyrannical urgency of immediate sanctification undermines the wide gift of God’s forgiving grace, thereby making sin appear more important than it actually is. Sin is so little, so impotent, so finally insignificant when set next to the astonishing love of Christ. And being set free from our proclivities toward sin requires (paradoxically) developing a dismissiveness toward its wiles: what appears in the moment of temptation as a great and terrible power seems but a trivial charade when the hour of weakness passes, so that one wonders why one was ever drawn to the wrong in the first place.
At the same time, the celibacy of our Savior inherently makes the satisfaction of sexual desires (at most) only of secondary importance. The expanded understanding of human flourishing Christianity offers deflates sexuality’s pretension to the throne of our souls, and reminds us of the many more interesting and subtle ways sinfulness can take hold of our lives. Focusing our desires through repeating ‘Thy Kingdom come’ daily allows us to consider questions of sexual desire from an inadvertent, sideways point of view. The discovery of such a deflationary attitude toward sexual desire is contrary to the approach critics of this conference have taken—but also contrary to the conference itself, which intensifies the importance of this particular set of experiences for the sake of responding to them theologically. It might be disappointing to hear little at Revoice about being gay, and much about seemingly irrelevant Christian practices. But one wonders whether we might all be better off for it.
Still, this deflationary attitude toward sexual desire seems impossible in part because of the controversies that have swirled around this conference—controversies animated in no large part by critics whose own outlooks on these questions are as unremittingly sexualized as the world they claim to stand against. To this co-belligerent, such a contentious environment seems to pose peculiar dangers for how gay Christians pursue the sanctification of their sexual lives. Despite the similarities in the theoretical questions about desire and identity, the stakes surrounding the answers are markedly higher for gay Christians. A young man may be unchaste in his relations with his wife; yet the fruit of such disobedience will likely remain invisible to everyone but the most saintly and sanctified among us. The lesbian couple, though, does not enjoy the luxury of this ambiguity—if it is indeed one. The wrongness of such a union is not only on the surface; but such a public form makes the illicitness of their sexual lives transparent in a way that unchastity within marriage will not be. This means, though, that permissible forms of life among chaste members of the same-sex will invariably invite controversy if they too closely approximate so-called “gay marriages.” Others within the church will doubtlessly struggle to keep distinct what mature gay Christians separate, in part because they have been unwittingly captured by the very sexualized ethos they decry. This tension keeps alive the possibility of ‘scandal’ within our Christian communities, a technical term that is probably worth recovering. I suspect the practices gay Christians pursue to order their sexual desires cannot be extricated from this possibility, and must be constrained accordingly.
This means, however, that gay Christians will carry a double burden. They are tasked with the appropriate formation of their sexual desires, as we all are. But they must also navigate such formation in the midst of a pervasive skepticism about the attempt to faithfully reclaim licit aspects of being gay while saying ‘no’ to illicit sexual desires. (Such skepticism comes from both inside and outside the church.) I imagine some gay Christians are tempted to throw off this double-burden by embracing an (ostensibly) sanctified form of the ‘pride’ that has animated secular gay communities. (This is a temptation those in this room have admirably avoided.) By celebrating, and not simply affirming, the lingering and licit marks of same-sex sexual desires on a person’s life, gay Christians could simultaneously escape the stigma they are saddled with and dissolve any burden of proof that might be upon their lives. Such a temptation doubtlessly seems reasonable. Yet I would encourage gay Christians to consider welcoming the double burden as an avenue for sanctification instead, even while carrying on the work of pointing out the diseased roots of criticisms they receive. One mark of chastity is the willingness to submit to the heightened scrutiny of others, even if they are imperfect witnesses on such questions. The newly married couple rightly tests each other’s non-marital relationships for faithfulness, while the couple enjoying their fortieth anniversary of chastely married life might enjoy wider freedoms for friendships outside their union. Fruit must be proved before it can be responsibly enjoyed or appealed to. Consider Leviticus 19, which prohibits Israel from enjoying the fruit of trees in the promised land until their fifth season. It is an odd injunction—and yet Christians who seek to cultivate faithfulness in their sexual lives might consider a similar kind of patience.
Gay Christians who do gladly accept this double burden have the high calling to remind the church that the limits and prohibitions God has placed on our lives are sources of our freedom and joy, and not their foe. Christ’s celibacy allows a deflationary attitude toward sexual desire—but does so in conjunction with the New Testament’s sharp denunciations of same-sex sexual acts and its heightened concern about the intentions and desires surrounding our sexual lives. The juxtaposition might seem like a contradiction: but chastity lives within the interconnection. Diminishing or downplaying the forcefulness of Scripture’s prohibitions cuts us off from the power of Christ’s affirmations. The appropriate formation of our sexual desires requires seeing Scripture’s prohibitions not as matters for embarrassment, but as the necessary and glad boundaries of our of our freedom: “Oh, how I love Thy law!” Gay Christians are required to say ‘yes’ to those aspects of their life and history that will remain when all the questions of sexual desire and temptation are set aside. The personal identity of gay Christians will be irrevocably marked by the peculiar set of choices and affections they are called to cultivate, choices and affections that even in the fullness of their sanctification will doubtlessly contain emphases and aspects distinct from those that will mark my own life, or the lives of other straight Christians. But gay Christians are also enjoined to pursue this ‘Yes’ with an unhesitating gladness about the ‘No’ that bounds it.
Holding together the affirmations and prohibitions of Scripture in this way is crucial for cultivating the peculiar fusion of reverential fear and love that make chastity such a significant virtue. Commending fear at a conference for gay Christians doubtlessly awakens anxious memories about the shame and punishment that has so oft been given for such desires. Yet the antidote to an unhealthy fear is not its elimination, but its transformation by the affirmation and love of God. The ‘fear of the Lord’ remains the beginning of wisdom. A reverential love for another person is founded upon the recognition of their beauty and goodness, and the need for prohibitions to preserve them—not upon the possibility of punishment. Love requires limits: we love creaturely goods only when we use them with reverence. It is for the sake of beer and burgundy, as Chesterton noted, that we do not drink too much of them. In the same way, there is no chastity without fear; there is no love without revering those made in God’s image, and without a radical unwillingness to wrong them even in the secret places of our hearts. Charity enfolds fear into love because the object of desire is too good, too wonderful to look upon except in the context and way that God has appointed.
Such reverential fear has special importance, I think, for two contexts that are closely related to the appropriate formation of our sexual desires. The first is friendship. While many gay Christians have rightly turned toward friendship as a bulwark against the isolation that so often accompanies being gay, my own interest here is more in the way friendships form our dispositions and desires. Perhaps no aspect of friendship is so morally potent as the way it makes acts appear more plausible as options for our own lives than they would be otherwise. A young couple on their way to marriage hears stories from close friends about a pre-marital tryst, and feels their own commitment to chastity weaken accordingly. A childless couple who are morally opposed to IVF learns dear friends are pursuing it, and wonders anew whether their own reasons for choosing otherwise are sufficient. Acts and choices by those who we consider intimate friends inherently raise questions about our own choices. Friendship with the world is enmity with God, not because the world is void of any good, but because intimacy with it makes it harder to avoid approving the illicit forms of life it generates. Without deliberate practices of resistance, our habits of thought and speech will inevitably conform to moral ecosystem we inhabit. And nowhere is that ecosystem most fully present, or most attractive, than in the lives of our friends.
If friendship is one path toward sanctifying our sexual desires, then, it must be formed around the set of affirmations and negations, permissions and prohibitions, that mark the chaste Christian life. A shared, unswerving commitment to the absolute and inviolable prohibition on same-sex sexual acts preserves our freedom for friendships as intense and devout as Jonathan and David’s (non-sexual) intimacy. When such a joint commitment is lacking, the friendship takes on a different moral character. In friendship, the choices and beliefs of one person are contagious: they change the moral environment for the other person. This means, though, that morally bad choices by friends require not simply tolerant acquiescence, but active resistance, at least if our own characters are not to be badly formed by the behavior of our friends.
Of course, the possibility of contagion only arises when two people have enough otherwise in common to make the other’s choice appear plausible. The Christian couple who are opposed to IVF will not feel their resolve weaken in the same way when their non-Christian friends undertake it. Our friends’ choices unsettle our own outlooks only when in cases where we share other commitments and doctrines upon which we have each based our lives. This feature of ‘moral contagiousness,’ though, means it is easier for Christians to be friends with gay atheists than same-sex affirming ‘Christians.’ The gay atheist asserts the licitness of same-sex unions on the basis of premises and assumptions distinct from those that mark the Christian’s life. But the same-sex affirming ‘Christian’ attempts to found the licitness of such unions within the faith itself, giving them a plausibility for other Christians that standard secular arguments cannot offer. Though both groups affirm same-sex unions, the latter do so in ways that do not scandalize the Christian community, or add to the confusion about the Church’s external witness on these questions. The responsibility to disfellowship from those Christians who remain unrepentant in their sins or the approval of them seems to be founded upon these principles. The stakes for faithfulness in our moral lives extends, then, even into the kinds of friendships we cultivate. The centrality of friendship for moral formation offers a particularly important proving ground for the cultivation of chastity’s fear and love, and our commitment to the prohibitions that give such chastity its vibrancy and form.
The second context in which the reverential fear of chastity comes to bear is more expansive, and more pervasive—and therefore less concrete or defined. It seems to this observer that one thing which remains after the purification of same-sex sexual desires—besides faith, hope, and charity—is the complex set of noticings and attractions toward members of one’s own sex. That is, there is a way in which ‘gay’ can describe a form of seeing, an insight into or awareness of the beauties or glories of one’s own sex that non-gay members of the sex must learn. This habit or tendency of so judging is aesthetic—but that does not mean it is reductionistically physical. The young man who notices a young woman observes her body, to be sure: but his complex set of judgments and attractions encompasses the range of traits and features that typically inhere within the body. It is not simply a female as such that one notices, but a woman—who is, in that moment, something of an archetype. To characteristically notice and be drawn toward males is to see something and be drawn toward something about men. And for the gay Christian, it is to see and be drawn to something true: gay Christians have discovered something worthwhile about those to whom they are attracted, something good—something that the other sex generally already understands.
But to speak of the cultivation of chastity in this aesthetic way is, I think, to collapse the differences between gay and straight Christians. Christian marriage requires that the male learn to see the world from the female’s point of view—the woman’s well-being and interests are rarely what the newly married man presumes them to be, so caught up is he in his own maleness. The freeing of women to be themselves is near the heart of so much marital frustration—and so much of its comedy. Marriage requires empathy, in other words: it requires imaginatively identifying with a person whose sex is not our own, so that we can see the world as it is. Yet this imaginative empathy also requires that the male see himself, and other males, in this new light. Empathizing with one’s wife means discovering her reasons for being attracted to a male—which are usually not the reasons a man would expect, dense and self-conceited as he doubtlessly is.
The formation of our aesthetic vision as the presupposition and context for sexual desire thus requires a willingness to step outside our own sex and discover the world from the other’s point of view. Such a responsibility falls upon gay and straight Christians alike, though its practices may take a different form in each. Chastity means seeing and loving the beauty of the world as God has made it, including the goods of both sexes. But it requires seeing and loving the goods of both sexes within two interrelated limits. First, chastity preserves and affirms the distinctive and irreplaceable differences between the sexes—rather than collapsing them together into the foggy haze of ‘queerness.’ Empathy requires difference; men who transcend sex by identifying as women, rather than with women, undermine the beauty of God’s created order that chastity responds to and preserves. Similarly, learning to see and love the world from the distinct perspective and virtues of the other sex deepens the experience of one’s own sex—rather than leading us to emulate the other.
Second, the cultivation of our aesthetic vision requires learning to see the twin forms of embodied glory in male and female as persons, who are not simply archetypes of beauty that awaken our fascinations, but are many-dimensioned mysterious creatures with histories and futures independent of our own. Here within our aesthetic awareness reverential fear and love must also abide, by surrounding and infusing our orientations with a sanctity and holiness that allows us to be free within them. Chastity requires renouncing any impulse to say mine about those we are drawn to: such persons are God’s, not ours, and only ours insofar as they are gifts from God. In this way, the erotic Christian life is free from the frenzied pressures and strivings its less sanctified forms take. The fire of chastity has at its center a cross of self-denial and self-abnegation, a cross that (as T.S. Eliot puts it) goes “by the way of dispossession” as the only way to possess that which we do not. To the pure all things are pure, precisely because they are not ours. Pride, which takes possession, can only be a contradiction and desecration of the Christian affirmation of eros. For the young man who allows every noticing or attraction he experiences to transform into a desire for sexual activity is locked within pride’s grip: while he has noticed the beautiful young woman as an archetype, he has almost certainly failed to realize she has not noticed him—leaving him to fantasize about having his own interest reciprocated, a central component to a fully formed sexual desire.
A chaste vision of the world, then, comes about through undertaking a comprehensive set of practices that inculcate both a fearful reverence and loving affirmation of ourselves and the world around us. Perhaps no practice is so potent for the cultivation of a Christian, de-sexualized eroticism as communal worship—Paul’s curious admonition about female head-coverings in the assembly seems to indicate as much. It is worth considering whether our evangelical megachurches have sufficiently bounded their worship with the kind of fearful reverence that recognizes the tremendous power of holiness. The atmosphere of much evangelical worship is highly eroticized—yet sometimes in ways or forms that appear as sexualized as ordinary concert music. The cultivation of eros within our communities needs to preserve the modesty and strangeness of holiness, and the forms of mystery and distance that preserve it. The intensity of religious affection that relegates sexual desires to their proper place in our lives should be difficult to experience, not easy—for it takes the form of a cross. At the same time, reading seems peculiarly important for the formation of this expanded vision: immersion in the narrative of Scripture makes us alive to the many facets and dimensions of life that are only tangentially related to sexual desire, helping us to recognize pride’s power in every other realm of life.
Other forms of literature allow us to cultivate friendships and loves with robustly textured, fictional persons—in ways in which the reciprocity required for sexual desires to emerge in their fullness is impossible. There is no school for imaginative empathy like the novel, and perhaps no better way to cultivate wisdom while remaining innocent than learning through the proxy worlds fiction creates. Reverence for those around us requires avoiding unnecessary experimentation; there is no substitute for the wisdom that comes from the failures and experiences of others, fictional or otherwise. Finally, the cultivation of erotic sentiments requires contemplative prayer; it takes the form of sitting alone in a dark room and feeling the energies and desires that animate our sexual lives wash over us, so that in offering them up to God we can begin to glimpse and taste a satisfaction we cannot now imagine.1 Such a practice must be bound to Scripture and immersed within it—for Scripture sets the form for our experiences, and the cultivation of our religious affections within contemplative prayer can only happen if we learn to love within its limits.
The task of being a gay Christian is, then, not so unlike simply being a Christian. Gay Christians can remind the church through their cultivation of a chaste eroticism that the end and aim of marriage is not sex itself, but the vision of a glory and beauty that transcends it. Such a task is perhaps harder for straight Christians, for whom the conflation of sex and eros is so natural and easy. The burden of skepticism from Christians who are thoroughgoing Freudians is a heavy cross to carry. But while despair doubtlessly crouches at the door, I plead with you upon the grace and love of God to not grow weary in your doing good of living a chaste life. The double burden upon you need not be an enemy of sanctification, but a most severe mercy. It is for the sake of those who persecute Him that our Lord takes up His cross.
In the same way, it will be for the sake of our churches that gay Christians welcome the heightened scrutiny others give them, and so by the integrity and holiness of their lives have the confidence to boldly call our communities to repentance. By cultivating a reverential fear and love within a life of joyful freedom, gay Christians can remind our churches of the power and beauty of the chastity they have forgotten. In many of our churches, Scripture’s prohibitions have been reduced to litmus tests to identify who is faithful—while such communities have simultaneously avoided any prohibitions from Scripture or tradition that might constrain the desires of the married heterosexual couples in our pews. Remaining complicit in the attitudes and atmospheres beneath the practices we denounce unsurprisingly destroys the compassion and love that should saturate our witness. A ‘prophetic’ witness on these questions requires integrity—and evangelical churches have none.
Because of this, though, gay Christians have the unique opportunity and charge to disclose to the church the true meaning of Scripture’s prohibitions as the sources of joy—and in so doing help our churches begin to love the prohibitions that stand over their marriages as well. This can only happen, though, if gay Christians embrace the burden of the cross within their same-sex attractions, and cultivate the reverential fear that holiness demands. And for their faithful renunciation of their same-sex sexual desires, gay Christians will receive back the freedom to delight in their own sex and the world God has placed us all in, transforming their scars of self-denial into marks of glory. Such, I take it, is the good news for gay Christians—and for us all.
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- On my account, erotic is a technical term that names not sexual desires per se, nor the romantic per se, but the energy of desire that makes us discontent with the world as it appears to us. It can be directed toward any variety of ends, but is properly ordered toward a longing for union with God Himself. This is, admittedly, an idiosyncratic use–though I would argue that it is Plato’s use of the term, and fits Augustine’s understanding of desire as well.
[…] See also Matt’s written version, “His Mercy is on them that Fear Him: What I Said at Revoice“ […]
A highly poetic and valiant effort to dig your heels in against the coming deluge without insulting Diana.
[…] Johanna Finegan, Joe Trout, and a panel discussion. (Matt Anderson has helpfully posted his entire manuscript at Mere Orthodoxy.) I still have many differences with the speakers here, and I have been back and […]
So wait, was the conference affirming celibate same sex relationships ?
[…] His Mercy is on them that Fear Him | Mere Orthodoxy – And being set free from our proclivities toward sin requires (paradoxically) developing a dismissiveness toward its wiles: what appears in the moment of temptation as a great and terrible power seems. […]
Matt, I’ve pondered these carefully articulated thoughts several times this past week and have listened to a number of the other presentations from the Revoice conference that are available online. I have greatly admired and benefitted from your writing in the last several years, and am often thankful for your articulate intellect. I don’t imagine for a moment that the thoughts of a random reader who you do not know will matter to you in the slightest, but I want to tell you how sad I will feel if your disappointment with the lack of integrity in broader evangelicalism (which disappointment I share) and your charitable impulse to defend friends who have found themselves in the “gay Christianity” movement, combine to tragically blind you and render you unqualified for making the contribution you could make in helping the Church to fashion a truly biblical anthropology, even as I have heard you aver is so necessary. Your words about friendship in this talk are extremely important, and I hope you take them to heart yourself. There was plenty at this conference that was deeply objectionable to historic biblical Christianity, and the way the movement is poised to evolve, as indicated by the speakers and focus projected for the next conference of its kind, already demonstrates its falseness even more overtly. I don’t mean to tar everyone involved with the same brush, but the movement as a whole I’m convinced is not orthodox.
I don’t doubt your charitable intention in lending your support to this controversial Revoice event, but I detect bitterness and resentment against evangelicalism, and I urge your attention to its corrosive effects on your soul, lest you become reduced and seduced by the Enemy. (Heb. 12:12-17) Truly, the Lord’s mercy is on those who fear Him. Don’t take your cues for what it is to fear God from a complacent and undiscerning evangelical church, of which I’ve concluded that this movement is actually a part. You will need to reject this “gay Christianity” movement as much as any other part of flimsy evangelicalism, and you will need to publicly protest and counter the rationale of some of the people you love in this movement, if you want to defend the Church from anthropological heresy and point us to a rigorous formation process of an orthodox anthropology. Your laudable intention for demonstrating patience in the sanctification process strikes me as downright naïve if it is not combined with a strong engagement that challenges thinking that is clearly wrong. My prayers are with you.
I think the downplaying of fulfillment of sexual desires is an important point. I have been in churches where sex within marriage was described as something very close to a need like hunger. I think that may actually be a capitulation to secular culture, and historical trends of the last 2 centuries, than is ever acknowledged.
And I think it’s a fair question to ask whether or not the church, on both sides has made more of this issue than is warranted. Although I would say a lot of it has stemmed from a response to the wider culture that has made much of it.
>> our freedom for friendships as intense and devout as Jonathan and David’s (non-sexual) intimacy
Childhood friendships can be intense. Remember? Nowhere in scripture does it encourage us to believe that Jonathan and David as described when they were boys to be a model for adult friendship. There’s no reason to think that King David had such friendships, as almost surely he couldn’t have. That Jonathan and Naomi are cited as models for friendship generally shows how absurdly idealistic the friendship debate has become in Christian circles.
Aristotle never suggested that what he wrote on friendship stemmed from his actual experience with his own friends. Surely it didn’t. He wrote about ideal friendship as Plato wrote about the ideal society: as a thought experiment. People don’t understand that today and read such works on friendship uncritically, and use it to further their own relational idealism. But it’s not grounded in reality.
Some years ago I read Joseph Epstein’s “Friendship: An Expose” and I was greatly relieved by it’s realism. I really was not appreciating my actual friends well enough because I was comparing them to ideal images, as we’re encouraged to do by the usual suspects. Dropping these ideal images by frankness and realism on the subject, a rarity, I was very relieved to realize my friends were far better than I could appreciate. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Human beings are idol making machines, the same as it ever was.