An infinity of angles at which one falls

I am convinced that there is a progressive apostasy on sexuality, which is marked by the affirmation of gay marriage. However, such a flagrant departure from the witness of Scripture and tradition at least has the virtue of being obvious. I have become convinced there is a ‘conservative’ stance on these questions that is more subtle in its capitulation to subChristian ways of thinking about sex and marriage, and more pernicious for being subtle.

… There is a Freudianism at work in [Denny] Burk’s account of sex … which corrodes his ethics. That is an ironic charge, I grant, given the frequency with which his associates have charged those who want to use ‘gay’ as capitulating to ‘modern’ understandings of sexuality …

In his famous description of “thrilling romance of Orthodoxy,” G.K. Chesterton suggests the early church found an “equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses.” She “swerved to the left and right,” leaving behind an Arianism that would make Christianity too worldly before repudiating an “orientalism” that would make it too unworldly. “It is easy to be a heretic,” Chesterton goes on, as it is “easy to let the age have its head.” After all, there are an “infinity of angles at which one falls,” but “only one at which one stands.” The whirling adventure of the emergence of orthodoxy required saying ‘no’ to distortions on every side, so that they might preserve an undiluted ‘Yes’ to the strange paradoxes of Christ’s life and witness. Such a situation is, I think, our own: it is possible to go wrong on matters of sex and marriage in ways besides affirming the licitness of same-sex sexual acts and desires. Indeed, it is possible to allow the spectacular transgressions our society’s broken anthropology has generated to make us inattentive to the same fundamental attitudes and dispositions present within our own midst, subtle and quiet though they might be.

… [A]ny denunciation of the ‘modern’ sexual ethic that does not address its most respectable, pervasive form in our churches will not have the confidence that can only come from consistency. My own work, published again earlier this week, failed abysmally in this respect. It is unconscionable how little I said in those chapters about the pervasive significance of procreation. I can only say that I regret the omission, repent earnestly of it—and have proved my repentance by writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the subject.

Burk and his organization have attempted to draw the boundaries of conservative evangelicalism around his understanding of sexual desire, such that to step anywhere outside of it is to capitulate to the spirit of our age. For Burk, the ‘neo-traditionalist’ attempt to affirm aspects of a ‘same-sex orientation’ or ‘gay identity’ is “doing something risky.” As he goes on to say, we “shouldn’t be surprised when [the neo-traditionalists] eventually reach the conclusion that same-sex behavior is ‘good’ as well.” This principle of inevitability is baked into Burk’s Manichean outlook on the world, in which the attempt to find and affirm virtues within our vices and goods within evils is one we are not free or empowered to undertake. The failure of one gay Christian to remain orthodox thus becomes evidence that the entire effort is flawed from the start—a principle Burk and his colleagues would (rightly) repudiate with the fiercest denunciations if an egalitarian ever accused their outlook of failure because a complementarian proponent was abusive. Burk’s account needs gay Christians to either renounce their approach or become progressives for its rightness to be vindicated. Is it any wonder that Burk’s organization has engaged in the culture war so vociferously during his and Owen Strachan’s tenure, despite the growing capitulation of heterosexual couples within their own communities to practices like IVF and surrogacy that reshape gender roles within marriages?

… It is a sign of evangelicalism’s frailty that it cannot abide by ‘risky’ attempts to affirm the goods of a life marked by a pervasive susceptibility to same-sex sexual desires, not of its strength or sanctity. Evangelicalism will only speak with the authority of true conviction on such questions when it remembers what chastity demands for its own marriages, and is unhesitating in risking the scorn and repudiation of its own members through naming the respectable sins we have let foster for the sake of our idolatrous commitments to sexual pleasure and biological children. When practices like IVF, surrogacy, and contraception are met with force equal to that with which we have met the great drama of gay marriage before us, I will begin again to trust the leaders God has currently given us. Until then, their denunciations of the world sound to this ear like resounding gongs, and their professions of love for gay Christians like clanging cymbals.

Matthew Lee Anderson. These were personal highlights in a very long essay — careful, critical and empathetic more than “erudite” — on the basis of which Anderson will next month present to the Revoice Conference. Meanwhile, Denny Burk and his Southern Baptist confreres are trying, bafflingly, to delegitimize the whole enterprise of “Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality”(!)

I think Anderson is “far righter” than Denny Burk, and he expresses movingly the reason for the Revoice Conference:

For those in the gay Christian community, how Christians have argued, taught, and spoken about these questions over the past thirty years has created an enormous amount of unnecessary collateral damage. Those who experience same-sex sexual desires have been left without a useful vocabulary to understand their own experience, except one that frames it in exclusively and comprehensively negative terms. This makes the qualifications by conservatives that their critiques of same-sex sexual desire are applicable to every form of desire sound like special pleading. The young man addicted to porn is allowed within his repentance the freedom to affirm the fundamental goodness of what he in fact desires (namely, marriage). On the most prominent account on offer right now, though, those who are gay are not allowed such an opportunity. Given this context, it seems reasonable to try—try—to extricate the theological and pastoral questions that such experiences raise from the grand cultural struggle, and to take them up anew on their own terms.

When even those participating in good faith are still arguing over terminology, some bumps and bruises were (and remain) inevitable.

But insofar as my own frequent forays into these topics have “created … unnecessary collateral damage,” I ask forgiveness. If I cause some of those inevitable bumps and bruises, I ask your charity. I’m conflicted even to post this, because we’ve just seen the disgrace of a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, illustrating (a) the intractability of sin, (b) the consequences when there’s inadequate context to give and receive non-genital love, (c) both, or (d) something else that I’m missing.

Talking, where both sides credibly profess adherence to historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality, seems worth the risk.

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“Fervently Catholic, proudly gay, happily celibate”

A New York Times feature Saturday morning profiles Eve Tushnet, styled A Gay Catholic Voice Against Same-Sex Marriage. Eve Tushnet is a very intriguing and forthright thinker/writer who had dropped off my radar though I had admired her in the past.

I find her intriguing today because, on a general topic that remains contentious (which is why it merits careful discussion, again and again, until sanity reigns) and shrill (it often seems that the world is divided into “it’s an abomination” and “you’re a closet queen homophobe” camps), I find myself agreeing with her almost 100%. Her position lifestyle convictions — shared at least in general terms by Orthodox, Catholics, and at least a few others — are neither antinomian nor “phobic” about anything.

Read the profile and read Tushnet’s website a bit. (Here is the link to subscribe to her blog, offered because it was deucedly hard for me to locate.)

Although one might fault her for writing and talking so much about her own sexuality (there’s too little privacy about private things in our exhibitionist age), I believe I understand her decision. In a world where opinion on homosexuality is as polarized as I described, a still-recent convert to a humbler, more historic Christian tradition may be excused for saying repeatedly that “the Gospel is good news for everybody” (as Fr. Thomoas Hopko put it) and “I’ve got credibility because I’m joyously living what I say.” So she’s not hiding her little light under a bushel.

I claim no exalted expertise or credibility on homosexuality. I have watched, read and thought a lot about it as one of the contentious “culture wars” issues of the day, and I’ve pushed back against the gay rights cause where I thought it was going beyond a demand for human dignity and impinging on the rights of others (in general, see my discussion of Chai Feldblum here). When I pushed back, I regretted the wounded and uncomprehending looks from some “out” acquaintances and friends, and accordingly triple-checked and recalibrated my Golden Rule Empathyometer. (I wasn’t off by much if at all. Whew!)

Here’s where I may disagree with Tushnet:

  • “Fervently Catholic” — “She could do better than that,” says this still-recent Orthodox convert from Protestantism. ‘Nuff said about that. 😉
  • “Proudly gay” — these aren’t her words, and perhaps she wouldn’t use them. I simply don’t know what they mean. Pride about anything is dangerous. Pride about unchosen homosexuality seems as silly as being “proudly straight.” And “gay” is also problematic: I thought “gay” connoted non-celibacy; I’ve even had televised debates where my adversary scornfully dismissed the possibility of celibacy with some catty crack like “what do you think ‘gay’ means!?” “Matter-of-fact about her homosexual orientation” seems apt. “Convinced that sexual orientation cannot be changed” is plausible as well, as the falls of several high profile evangelical “reparative therapy” fans attest. But “proud.” Nah.
  • “She does not see herself as disordered” — this passing characterization, in case you’re unaware, represents a gentle repudiation of the Roman Catholic position that homosexual inclination is “objectively disordered.” I’m inclined, in contrast to Tushnet, to agree with that characterization — while quickly adding that there’s something(s) “objectively disordered” about a lot of things in this world. For that reason, I have not taken “objectively disordered” as a put-down, or particularly applied it to persons as opposed to inclinations and practices.
  • “Sin ‘means you have a chance to come back and repent and be saved,’ she says” — While it is true that “sin” doesn’t mean “you’re bad,” neither does it mean you have a chance to come back and repent and be saved. Sin (Greek amartia) means missing the mark (from which miss you indeed can repent etc.).

Somehow, though, it seems inadequate simply to say I agree with the rest of Tushnet’s “positions” in the profile. Instead, I especially appreciate her courage in advocating and modeling celibacy and passionate friendships, including same sex friendships, as the profile alludes to Tushnet’s “theology of friendship, as articulated in books like St. Aelred’s ‘On Spiritual Friendship.’”

I know some decent people who think that anything like “passionate friendships” are just too dangerous (or some such thing) for people with homosexual inclinations, but were there no other problems with that view, there is the very real danger in of any self-imposed, or socially-imposed, isolation. My attitude (to put it in terms of one of my own besetting sins) basically is “The world’s a dangerous place. I can’t stop eating just because I have an inclination to gluttony. I must eat – and risk loss of control – or die. And by analogy ….” I’ll bet you can fill in the rest (which presumes a universal human need for deep friendship). We’re “persons” only in relationship, and an isolated “individual” isn’t much to brag about.

Tushnet is refreshingly realistic about temptation, too: “‘It turns out I happen to be very good at sublimating,’ she says, while acknowledging that that is a lot to ask of others.” Perhaps a lot to ask especially of people trying to become fully human persons in close relation to others.

But in the world, as in the monastery, when a Christian falls, he/she gets back up. And if you fall again, you get up again. Maybe you ask yourself at some point “Am I exposing myself to too much temptation? Should I flee like Joseph from Potiphar’s wife?,” but that’s not my call to make for anyone other than myself.

Eve Tushnet: I’m putting you on my blogroll. Keep up the good work.

Madness, Genius, Torment

I’m fascinated by the tortured, twisted biographies of so many creative types (not that I have a great deal of time to read extended biographies, but my websurfing habits lead me to encounter vignettes fairly often).

Today’s Writer’s Almanac has a little biography of Allen Ginsberg, born this day in 1926, and an excerpt from his poem Kaddish. Mental illness up the family tree. Ginsberg came to terms with being a very “out” homosexual, but he was tortured earlier in life with perceptions of antisemitism and addition to the burden of very eccentric parents.

Coincidentally, the New York Times today also has an obituary for “poet and Ginsberg muse” Peter Orlovsky. Troubles by the number, heartaches by the score. Booze, drugs, anything but monogamous.

Falling somewhat short of torture and torment perhaps is the life of E.M.Forster, author of Passage to India, which placed him at the top of the heap of British novelists, but also marked his virtual withdrawal from further publication during the rest of his life. Here’s a little attempted insight into the backstory (titled “A Closet With A View,” should you want a hint).

I could go on, but my day job beckons.

Speaking of “day jobs” and shifting a bit, I puzzle at times about the neural connections behind the scientific and engineering careers of many excellent amateur musicians I know. And don’t forget Russel Crowe’s unforgettable portrayal of a mad mathematician and game theorist in A Beautiful Mind.

Okay, I’m in a university town, and the university is a Land Grant school with an Ag and Engineering emphasis historically, so that’s anecdotal. So’s the tortured gay artist impression. But they’re my anecdotes, on my blog, and I’m stickin’ to ’em. (Insights welcome just the same.)

And I’m adding creativity to the list of things I don’t understand, saying a heartfelt Kyrie Elieison for these folks who suffered mightily, transgressed commandments quite openly — and made our lives richer.

Can homosexual orientation be changed?

Oh, my! The saga continues! This is as more confusing as than the the Intelligent Design versus Evolution kerfuffle!

The weight of professional opinion seemed to me to have become that same-sex orientation was unchangeable.

So I had pretty much come to the conclusion that Christian people with exclusive same-sex attraction simply needed to gird themselves for life-long sexual abstinence, without even the hope of an abstinent bachelor or spinster (I know the former is neutral, the latter deprecatory in connotation – sorry) someday finding Mister or Miss Right. (I generally say “chastity” instead of “abstinence” when dealing with, say, teen sexuality of clients at Matrix Lifeline, because of chastity’s relatively positive connotation. But chastity outside Christian marriage means abstinence and repentance for lapses.)

I would not have urged a gay or lesbian Christian, in other words, to try to become heterosexual.

I might have encouraged them to consider a monastic vocation to get away from our hypersexualized culture and, for an Orthodox monastic, to engage in this ultimate battle against all the passions. But monastic vocation should not be undertaken toward the specific end of sexual reorientation, as if to say “I’ll be a monastic until I’m straight, and then I’ll laicize and marry.”

But here is a flawed column citing provocative information to the effect that I may have been wrong.

[T]he American College of Pediatricians … recently began a campaign to educate schools on sexual orientation and youth. “Facts About Youth” cites research that shows that over 85% of students with homosexual attractions will ultimately adopt a heterosexual identity as adults.

Okay, the American College of Pediatricians can be, as is being, faulted as a Christian front group impersonating the American Academy of Pediatrics. Point taken. But the American Psychiatric Association did not dispassionately de-list homosexuality as a disorder because of the great weight of scientific evidence. They did it for the same reason that the American Bar Association endorsed abortion – just before I resigned: a powerful lobby with an agenda mau-maued the APA (and the ABA). It’s hard to find neutrality on some subjects.

But what of these studies they cite?

If they exist, and are methodologically sound, they at least suggest that sexuality in youth is highly confused – perhaps even malleable. Mightn’t it be premature to tell conflicted adolescents that “you’re gay (or bi-); get used to it and celebrate it”? As long ago as Kinsey, there were claims that an astonishing proportion of people had experienced some same-sex encounter in their lives. And there are, after all, even adults who get sexually aroused by things like feet or underwear. Adolescent arousal by a member of the same sex may not mean much about one’s ultimate sexual destiny. (Would you think you were destined to get off with shoes forever if they turned you on?)

[There is a] growing body of research demonstrating that changing one’s sexual orientation is indeed possible.

Among those being ignored is Columbia University’s Dr. Robert Spitzer, whose 2003 landmark study was published in the prestigious journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. To his surprise, Spitzer – who ironically spearheaded the removal of homosexuality from the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973 – found that the majority of his 200 subjects experienced significant change in their same-sex feelings through therapy and support groups: “Like most psychiatrists, I thought that homosexual behavior could only be resisted, and that no one could really change their sexual orientation. I now believe that to be false. Some people can and do change.”

If that’s not convincing enough, in 2009 the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality published a comprehensive overview of research, citing over 500 scientific studies spanning nearly 100 years of research that demonstrates change is possible. However, these facts aren’t being communicated to young people. What is being educated to our youth is based on political correctness, not sexual freedom.

Dr. Robert Spitzer has no known ax to grind, but is a fairly dramatic “conversion story.” NARTH may have an ax to grind; that’s not clear to me.

By all means stop the persecution of young people who have doubt about their sexuality or who have come out as gay or lesbian (or are harassed for other reasons, like Phoebe Prince), but let’s have a little retiscence about showing 13 year old boys how most safely to sodomize or be sodomized, and suchlike.

And I’m not ruling out the possibility that some adults can change from gay to straight. It won’t upset my worldview if it proves false, but I may have closed my book prematurely.