[Note, June 2016: This post was written when I was first beginning the process of trying to reconcile my past as a theologically traditional Christian and my (at that time) present as a non-believing open and affirming gay man. This post and the two others in the series mark the start of a long process, which has come to a beautiful and profound genuine reconciliation in my mind and heart. I leave the post here as is out of respect for my journey, and to the journey of others who may just be beginning. I will revisit these issues on my blog soon to more accurately reflect where I am now.]
In my last post, I discussed why I’m writing on this subject and explained three criteria I believe are essential for a Christian response to the question of homosexuality. I finished by saying that in my (wholly biased) opinion, homosexuality represents a perfect storm for Christian pastoral care. In this second post, I’m going to try to justify that claim by talking about some of the major and messy issues raised by homosexuality for Christians.
The first major issue is that the narrative of homosexuality in the Scriptures (limited as it is) runs completely counter to the experiences of homosexuals. In a passage I have long found troubling, St. Paul essentially holds out homosexuality as the pinnacle of wickedness, the end result of people turned away from God (Romans 1). This is far from the experience of the vast majority of homosexuals, for whom our sexual orientation seems as innate as the instinct to breathe or eat or sleep, who have known of our sexuality since childhood, and many of whom sought after God for years, seeking to ‘do the right thing’ and cultivating Christian virtues as much as possible in every aspect of our lives. The experience of gays and lesbians is nothing like what St. Paul describes. Asking us to accept such a narrative would be asking us to accept as truth something that could not be further from our experiences and would require us to reject our own life stories as delusion.
On the flip side, God’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality while simultaneously doing nothing to ‘fix’ it runs counter to the basic Christian narrative of a loving God who would stop at nothing to put a broken world to rights. The demand either to wait faithfully for a change that will in all likelihood not come or to resign oneself to a life of solitude and celibacy while constantly warring against oneself, with God seemingly unable or unwilling to help seem a heavy heavy burden from a God whose ‘yoke is easy’ and ‘burden light’. For faithful conservative/traditional Christians with same-sex attraction, this is confusing and painful on a deep and almost ontological level. So, again, there is a narrative mismatch.
I’m not saying that homosexuals are the only people who have to struggle; far from it: All Christians have experiences of suffering and struggle and disappointment with God. In that sense, we are no different from the Christian community at large. However, the difference lies in the fundamental clash of narratives I’ve discussed above. It genuinely feels that there is nothing we can do to ‘win’, like the rules have been set up in a way that failure is the only option. Sexual orientation is so deeply ingrained that even the distinction (helpful and necessary as it is) that having same-sex attraction is not itself sinful, but only acting on such attraction, can be at times bewildering. It feels as though we are being told that it’s okay for a light to be switched on but not to see by its illumination; or that it’s not sinful to have a natural love and passion for words and their sounds and meanings, but it is sinful to create poetry. Essentially, to flip the whole point of this series of posts on its head, a genuine engagement of Christianity by people with same-sex attraction leads to a giant question mark; in relation to our own experiences, the claims of traditional Christianity seem absurd.
Secondly, there are major philosophical issues. I’ve long been perplexed by why it seems the intensity of the condemnation of homosexuality in many churches is so much more extreme than it is for other sins on which the Scriptures dwell far more. (When was the last time you heard a pastor urge his congregation to beat gossip out of their children? When was the last time you heard of parents kicking their teenagers out on the streets on account of their pride?) While I clearly don’t agree with such extremism, I do think there could be an explanation for it. Ultimately, beyond levitical laws or apostolic teachings, I think it’s because Christianity has a fundamental metaphysical commitment to a kind of idealism. I don’t mean this in a technical sense, but just in that Christianity believes that the universe was created in accordance with a divine plan, order, or rationale (Greek logos; Hebrew dabar ; English usually translated Word). This order was broken with the advent of sin, and the story of the Scriptures is that of God working in and through the world to restore this original wholeness both on a metaphysical and on a personal level (This is difficult to discuss without long and technical treatises; please forgive the mixed metaphors). When you have something like sexuality, which seems to have a clear and obvious primary purpose, in such a framework any deviation from that purpose is an equally clear and obvious example of the brokenness God is in the business of healing. Therefore, for conservative/traditionally-minded Christians, homosexuality is less a ‘sin’ as such as it is a major rupture within Creation; to bless it would be to bless the fallen order itself. This is also why, I believe, it is so difficult for Christians with same-sex attraction to embrace their sexuality or even simply to accept that their sexuality will not change: to do so would be to reject basic assumptions about the nature of Creation and Redemption; it is saying that “Though You slay me still I will trust in You” is the best we can expect from a God who is otherwise revealed to have great love, mercy, and compassion on His Creation.
All this is to say that a real engagement of the experiences of homosexuals by the Church involves not just a discussion about right and wrong but also raises issues which call into question fundamental assumptions of the faith. Who is God? What does it mean to be created? To be broken? To be redeemed? To be saved? These are the some of the most important theological questions for Christians, and a genuine discussion of homosexuality hits at all of them. Now, it could be that the required narrative or theological shift need not be significant, but the simple act of having to retread such well-worn theological paths and perhaps be forced out of some comfortable presuppositions by uncomfortable truths is very daunting.
Thirdly, in addition to the clash of experiences and expectations and to the philosophical issues, there is the clinical reality that homosexuality is, psychologically speaking, harmless: there is no inherent harm in having same-sex attraction or in pursuing same-sex romantic relationships. As discussed in my last post before this series, even well-intentioned therapeutic efforts to reorient human sexuality often do far more harm than good, attempting to ‘fix’ a problem that is, psychologically speaking, not problematic. This makes it difficult to rationalize why homosexuality is wrong. All too often, this leads Christians in the public arena simply to talk about their perceived fears about the dangers of homosexuality as though they were facts, despite ample evidence to the contrary. When they abandon the knee-jerk reactions and fear-mongering, they are often left with “It’s wrong because it’s wrong”, which may be true, but is hardly persuasive, or “It’s wrong because it’s abnormal”, which can only be a valid argument if one is consistent in labeling all differences between how people think or are wired as sinful, an argument I don’t think Christians should be quick to make.
To be honest, I really don’t envy Churches now forced to engage this issue in an intelligent manner. If homosexuality is wrong, as the Scriptures and Tradition say it is, it is difficult for Churches to deal with the experiences of homosexuals in their midst authentically. If Christians want to accept homosexuality as being okay, they then need to rethink their own hermeneutics and theological constructs. None of these are easy propositions.
In the final part of these reflections, I will attempt to offer some possible ways the Church could move past such impasses if it so chooses.