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Sexuality, Personal Wholeness & the Church

I recently came across this post by Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic online.  It provides some interesting thoughts about homosexuality and the church.

Fundamentally, [being gay is about] one’s core emotional identity. It’s about whom one loves, ultimately, and how that can make one whole as a human being … a single person’s moral equilibrium in a whole range of areas can improve with marriage … because there is a kind of stability and security and rock upon which to build one’s moral and emotional life.  To deny this to Gay people is not merely incoherent and wrong, from the Christian point of view.  It is incredibly destructive of the moral quality of their lives in general…

You can’t ask someone to suppress what makes them whole as a human being and then to lead blameless lives.  We are human beings, and we need love in our lives in order to love others, in order to be good Christians!  What the church is asking Gay people to do is not to be Holy, but actually to be warped … no wonder people’s lives, many Gay lives, are unhappy or distraught or in dysfunction, because there is no guidance at all.  Here is a population within the church, and outside the church, desperately seeking spiritual health and values, and the church refuses to come to our aid, refuses to listen to this call.

What I find most interesting and theologically horrifying about this statement is its idolatrization of marriage and sexual love.  Sullivan makes plain what I think many gay Christian apologists most strongly assert, namely that their sexual orientation is one of, if not the most determinative aspect of their identity and as such, to deny them the full expression of that identity in sexual relationships is tantamount to asking them to be less the fully human.  As Sullivan says, being gay is a homosexual person’s, “core emotional identity”.  If that is indeed the case, I don’t know how a gay person could be a Christian.  On the same hand, if it is the case the being straight makes one’s heterosexual orientation their “core emotional identity”, then neither could a straight person be a Christian.

The gospel of Jesus Christ explicitly denies that our “core emotional identity” is something interior to ourselves.  What defines is not something which we possess, but rather that which happens to us extra nos in Christ.  A Christian, gay or straight in no way derives their “core emotional identity” from their attractional orientation, or from their sexual practices.  What constitutes Christian identity is the self-giving of God in Christ which brings us into communion within the Triune life and thus with one another as the body of Christ.  Put differently, it isn’t the union of sexual love, but the koinonial, kenotic communion of the Eucharist which defines and establishes our identity and humanity.

However, Sullivan is right when he says that “We are human beings, and we need love in our lives in order to love others, in order to be good Christians!”  Indeed we do, but God’s answer to that reality of human neediness and vulnerability is not marriage, it is Pentecost.  The church is the communion of love and solidarity that makes it possible for any Christian, gay or straight to live a life of virtue, fulfillment, and joy.  The good news about the life given to us in Christ is that no one, gay or straight need derive their identity from being married or having sex.  What Christians must explicitly deny is that it is in marriage that we are given this ”kind of stability and security and rock upon which to build one’s moral and emotional life.”  If that’s the case then Jesus had no foundation for his moral and emotional life and neither do I!

The source of our stability is not in marital union, but in the cross and resurrection of Christ and in his sacramental body, the church.  The challenge to the church is, then to live faithfully in such a way that the world may know that such lives of emotional and moral stability can be formed and nurtured in the common life of the church.  We are called as a church to deny the idolatry of marriage as that which “makes us whole.”  What makes us whole is the work of God in Christ, who reconciles alienated peoples together in one body.  Wholeness, for Christians is not that glorious cigarette after a good tussle in the sheets, it is Shalom. And that shalom is not found in marriage or in sexual expression, it is found in the cross, in the Eucharist and in lives lived in common, committed to reconciliation, support, and mutual love.  That is the church’s vocation, to be the space in which those things exist.  When that is indeed the case, and only then, does the church have moral credibility when it calls people to the peculiar sexual practices – which often involve great sacrifice – that characterize Christian discipleship.  That is not easy news, but I am convinced that it is good news.  And really, a cigarette shared with good friends over conversation and laughter is just about as good as one after sex.

8 Comments

  1. Derrick wrote:

    Great post Halden! This is a somewhat more abstract take on Sullivan’s quote, but it would be interesting to do a study on the methodology he uses to “translate,” anthropology into theology or vice-versa. While I know little more than what his quote illustrates, it seems that he is manifesting a type of secularized foundationlism that is allowing an abstract concept of the “human,” to further determine his theological choices. This would explain his somewhat peculiar notion of marriage as a “rock,” that ultimately can “make one whole as a human being.” I think your critique absolutely brings to light the deficiency here: while certainly the holistic emphasis of postmodern anthropology needs absolutely to be taken into account (a lot of which, of course, itself stems from the centuries of Christian influences), one wonders, if the love that makes one whole as a human being is another human being in the form of marriage, that this completion, transposed into Church life, does not make the Church, or a relation to Christ, an unnecessary appendix to an otherwise constituted human being-in-relation! How funny then that Sullivan would use this entire line of thinking to promote a “Christian” view on life when, in fact, it renders superfluous any “Christian” thinking at all.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  2. chris wrote:

    Remind me Halden, are you married? I think that matters for your point here. I am, and after this comment:
    “And really, a cigarette shared with good friends over conversation and laughter is just about as good as one after sex”
    I can only imagine that you are a celibate single.

    I agree with your point that our wholeness is not found in our sexual fulfillment, but on the other side, it matters how we define sexual fulfillment.

    Friday, June 15, 2007 at 8:26 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I am still single, though I don’t hope to stay that way forever. But, I have had cigarettes in a “variety” of contexts, and I think my statement still holds true. :)

    Friday, June 15, 2007 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  4. Patrick wrote:

    I was wondering myself about the cigarette comment. I was under the impression that you were single unto the Lord. Unfortunately, even as a married man, I cannot affirm or deny your claim since my wife isn’t a huge fan of smoke…and it would make eveything else smell like it.

    Your comments on the quote are totally valid. The way in which we order and give priority to certain expressions of human life (in this case sex) must be aligned in submission to Christ as head. A foolish man builds upon sand, and anchoring into sexual expression as foundational to one’s wholeness is incredibly dangerous. It seems like that same argument could be made for bestiality or pedaphelia or any other form of deviant sexual behavior, as well as heterosexual behavior as you note above.

    On what grounds is this prioritization of sexual expression and self-concept sustained? Is it assumed? Are there any arguments to demonstrate the validity of a claim? I’d be interested in hearing some more about this…

    Friday, June 15, 2007 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Patrick, I’d say that it isn’t even so much assumed as it is ingrained through the way capitalism has formed the shape of our personal relations in the west. Actually, a book that touches on this in some great ways is Terry Eagleton’s After Theory, which I’ve quoted from a bit.

    And as to the cigarette comment, I did intend it lightheartedly. But, my point is that the pleasures of marital sexual life don’t “fulfill” a person in the way in which it is touted in contemporary culture. What makes us whole is shalom, the fullness of relationship with others. Anyone who could be relationally fulfilled through a marriage relationship must be a pretty shallow person. We are more complex than that, and that’s precisely why God’s idea of redemtion is a body.

    And single though I may be, every married person I know, regardles of how long they’ve been married agrees with me about the basic claim I’m making. But, if someday I have a cigarette after my first round of marital bliss and it turns out to be way better, I’ll be sure to retract my statement! :o)

    Friday, June 15, 2007 at 9:29 am | Permalink
  6. Lee wrote:

    Sullivan’s comments do fall prey to some of the criticisms offered here, but there is, I think, a valid point in there trying to get out.

    What I think it is is this: the traditional Christian sexual ethic asks gay people to make sacrifices that it simply doesn’t ask of straight people. The fact that some people are called to the sacrifice of celibacy doesn’t change the fact that it’s in no way considered the norm for straight Christians.

    So gay Christians (and others) are, I think, quite right to ask on what grounds they’re being asked to make this sacrifice (always and everywhere), especially when so many of the traditional reasons for the prohibition of same-sex sexual/romantic relationships seem so unpersuasive.

    Friday, June 15, 2007 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    I guess on one level I want to acknowledge the force of your point, Lee. It is true that the traditonal Christian ethic asks something of gays that it does not always ask of straight people. That is hard. I do think the church is right to ask this, and this has to to with a whole range of convictions that I have regarding the theological significance of male-female creation, but that’s really another discussion.

    All I can really say is that the gospel demands great sacrifices from everyone, and gays are not the only group that are asked to make very difficult sacrifices that other Christians may not have to make. And the one thing that I do know is that of all the gay Christians I have known well, their action to taking on celibacy in the context of living a life in the church has been incredibly redemptive.

    Friday, June 15, 2007 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  8. While it is pretty clear that our culture idolizes sex and sentimentalizes marriage, still, isn’t there something biblically pretty special about sexual union in the context of an exclusive and spiritual commitment? I’m thinking Paul in Ephesians harking back to the Genesis theme of the One Flesh and the Song of Songs and the mystery of Christ and the Church. Are we in danger of underplaying the gracious gift of a stable (and sexual) union, in the economy of God’s grace to the human race, and to the Church?

    I don’t mean my question as taking a stand on whether or not faithful same sex partners experience or participate in this divine gift to the human race. Instead, I am simply wondering if it mightn’t be just a little bit facile and reductive to simply re-placing the mystery of the One Flesh with the mystery of the Body of Christ? They are closely analogous, it seems; one is the sign of the other, or it can be. Sexual intimacy with love and commitment is in itself something very precious in the biblical view of things, isn’t it?

    Of course those who are “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” can have joyous and redemptive lives — no one is disputing that. (I’m one and I’m heterosexual.) And to live in sincerity by the lights of one’s Christian conscience — and never to deny one’s conscience, whatever it says — is always necessary. But to deny human beings any access to a faithful and committed bodily love — and to its function as a stable basis for a family with children, too — because they cannot experience intimacy with a member of the opposite sex does ask a very great deal of them.

    But the real issue is not the degree of sacrifice asked of Christians, but when and in what situations we might be imposing the Law upon ourselves and on our brothers and sisters to the detriment of Grace. Dare we ever be complacent that we rightly perceive the difference between holiness and legalism? Hasn’t the Church’s history taught us just how legalistic we can be, with all the good intentions in the world and without seeing our sacrifices as being the self-mutilations and other-mutilations they have often been?

    In every generation new situations seem to arise, forcing us to return to the Cross and gauge anew and yet again where we are to suppose that Grace leaves off and Law begins. “The letter killeth, but the spirit maketh alive.”

    I don’t mean to be argumentative. I’m trying to be as honest as I can be.

    In practice, we in the Church find ourselves able to make all kinds of allowances for heterosexual Christians who are having affairs, being promiscuous, divorcing without biblical grounds, or conducting abusive marriages. But where we feel inside ourselves a deep antipathy of any kind, rooted in our most primitive and personal and cultural histories, that perhaps is where we have to be the most on guard against ourselves, against our certainties being maybe instead an implacable resistance to loving others fully. God has usually worked on me, first, by disrupting my assumptions….

    Yet God is holy and the importance of holiness cannot be diminished. I guess I think we should be pretty agonized and un-certain on this issue….

    Saturday, October 18, 2008 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

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