The Revoice Conference, to be held in St. Louis at the end of July, will provide support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or same-sex-attracted Christians who accept and try to live by traditional Christian sexual ethics. The Spiritual Friendship blog, which I co-founded with Wesley Hill, will sponsor a pre-conference. As a result of pre-conference publicity, a number of Christian writers have vociferously criticized the conference and the Spiritual Friendship blog for being too compromised by gay identity politics.
Revoice founder Nate Collins has already addressed the controversy here. As the co-founder of Spiritual Friendship and a speaker at Revoice, I respond to critics’ charges in this essay.
Augustine or Freud?
Although I disagree with parts of his theology, and think some of his criticism is misdirected, Denny Burk’s “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” (his answer, in short, is “yes”) goes into much more depth than recent critiques, though the arguments are similar. Burk frames the critique of our work in Augustinian terms. However, many of the ways he and our other critics have misunderstood our project are the result of an unconsciously Freudian understanding of love, desire, and sexuality. I therefore begin with what I see as the key distinctions between these two approaches.
St. Augustine begins the Confessions by saying to God, “you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” The major theme of the Confessions is Augustine’s exploration of how his various desires—to be loved and to love, to indulge in pleasure, to gain fame, to know philosophy—were ultimately a restless search for God. And this was the case despite the fact that these desires, twisted by the Fall, led him into pride, idolatry, false belief, fornication, and many other sins.
There is no doubt that disordered sexual desire played an important role in Augustine’s struggles in his youth and young adulthood, and was a serious obstacle for him in submitting to Christian faith. But it’s easy for modern readers, formed by a post-Freudian sexual culture, to misunderstand the way that Augustine conceives of his desires.
For Augustine, loves that are properly ordered to God and neighbor are rooted in reality and bring peace and flourishing; disordered desires are rooted in illusion and lead us away from our true good. As he wrote in the Confessions:
Human friendship is also a nest of love and gentleness because of the unity it brings about between many souls. Yet sin is committed for the sake of all these things and others of this kind when, in consequence of an immoderate urge towards those things which are at the bottom end of the scale of good, we abandon the higher and supreme goods, that is you, Lord God, and your truth and your law. These inferior goods have their delights, but not comparable to my God who has made them all.
To pursue pleasure at the expense of rightly ordered love not only costs us the highest good of God’s love, but also corrupts human love. Augustine wrote that his own youthful (heterosexual) lust “polluted the spring water of friendship with the filth of concupiscence.” So for Augustine, our desire for pleasure—particularly sexual pleasure—can be a powerful distraction from our true good, which is found only in God’s love and in well-ordered human loves.
In contrast, Sigmund Freud believed that the most important human drive was the libido, or desire for pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure. Because unrestrained libido would lead to chaos, our parents and civilization force us to repress this desire, and this repression, he thinks, is the cause of most neuroses. Though this raw desire for pleasure can be sublimated into “higher” loves, like romantic love, marriage, and even celibacy, the foundation of these loves remains the libido.
So in Augustine’s picture, God is love, and human beings are created in God’s image, created to love God and to love each other. In turning from these true goods to lesser but more immediate goods like pleasure, we deprive ourselves of our true fulfillment. In Freud’s view, on the other hand, we are animals who desire pleasure, and our “higher” emotions are an attempt to fence in our instinctive desires to conform to the demands of civilization.
The Spiritual Friendship blog takes its name from a series of dialogues by a twelfth century monk named Aelred of Rievaulx, whose spirituality was heavily shaped by Augustine.
It was one of Augustine’s basic insights that evil is a perversion of good. In this way, people tend to think of homosexuality as a perversion of marriage, and this is, in many respects, true: sexual love only conforms with God’s plan for human nature when expressed in marriage between a man and a woman.
Wesley Hill, Eve Tushnet, and I argue that homosexuality is also a perversion of friendship. The normative form of same-sex love between those who are not blood relations is friendship—like that shared by Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, and Jesus and the beloved disciple.
Eve Tushnet recently observed:
We’re constantly being told that same-sex sexual desire is disordered, which I accept, as I accept all that is taught by Holy Mother Church. But when people . . . try to tell you how to order your desires, they always try to get you to keep the expression of desire the same, but change the object. This is the “become straight” option, if “option” is the word I want. There is another way for desire to become ordered: same object, different expression. People who long for same-sex love and intimacy should maybe be encouraged to learn how to do that, since it is good, and holy, and beautiful.
Aelred’s primary focus in the dialogues is on how to cultivate holy and Christ-centered friendships, and how such friendships can help friends grow in virtue. However, Aelred also treats sexual sin—particularly homosexual sin—as a distorted form of friendship.
But it is not just that distorted friendship can lead to sexual sin; the most important point we took from Aelred was that rightly ordered friendship can be a school of virtue, including the virtue of chastity. And this finds plenty of support in contemporary Catholic teaching, which says that “the virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship,” and specifically commends friendship for those with homosexual inclinations. In the summary of Catholic teaching just linked, I wrote:
There are at least two ways of thinking about a relationship like this. The first is to say, “The only context where sexual intimacy is appropriate is between a married man and woman. These sexual feelings are directed to the wrong object.” This zeroes in on the specifically sexual aspect of the relationship, and neglects the broader context of the friendship . . .
The other is to say, “Same sex friendship is a union of souls, not of bodies. These specifically sexual desires cannot be fulfilled in this relationship; the true purpose of this relationship is spiritual friendship.” This approach focuses first on the love between the persons, and asks how that love can be purified. It is more in keeping with the priority of love in Christian ethics and anthropology, and also makes more sense in light of the teaching cited above.
Consider the challenge of inculcating the virtue of chastity during adolescence. We recognize that most adolescents’ emotions and desires are not well-ordered. But for straight adolescents, we try to point them toward healthy ways of expressing their desire to be loved and to love, and steer them away from danger. If the Church only emphasizes the sinfulness of homosexual sex (or even desire), we give adolescents struggling with sexual desires for their own sex no guidance about how to cultivate well-ordered loves.
The fact that most of us will have to abstain from romantic and sexual relationships for life creates unique pastoral challenges. Christian teaching on friendship provides important resources for addressing these concerns.
We understand the turn to spiritual friendship as an Augustinian purification that turns toward a real good, not as a Freudian sublimation that tries to keep as much disordered libido as we can without crossing a line.
Vocation or Identity?
In a letter to a friend, C.S. Lewis affirmed the traditional view that all homosexual sex is sinful. But he also wrote that “in homosexuality, as in every other tribulation,” God’s works can be made manifest. That is, “every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will ‘turn the necessity to glorious gain.’” The Spiritual Friendship blog is an attempt to understand what that vocation might be.
As God is increasingly marginalized in our culture, fewer and fewer people understand their life as a response to a call from God; instead, they seek to create their own subjective identity. Interestingly, more and more Christians, including our critics, speak of “identity in Christ” rather than in the traditional relational language of vocation. Those who have absorbed a Freudian view of sexuality from the surrounding culture will see their “sexual orientation” (which sex they typically desire sexually) as one of the deepest, most important things about themselves, because it describes the wellspring of all their other desires.
But this is not how we see ourselves. Most Spiritual Friendship writers acknowledge an enduring pattern of same-sex sexual temptations. But rather than understanding this as the core of our identity, we have sought to reframe our self-understanding in light what the Bible and Christian tradition teach about human love and human sexuality.
Desire vs. Will
In “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” Denny Burk offers a purportedly Augustinian argument that all “sexual possibility” must be removed from a friendship for it to be God-honoring. If he is saying that when our sanctification is complete in heaven, there will be no possibility of homosexual sin, then I agree. But if we are talking about life on earth, then he is holding out a standard that neither Augustine nor Calvin would expect to be met in any other struggle with temptation and sin.
Burk’s argument focuses on the eradication of the desire for sin, which is to say he views homosexual orientation as sinful rather than merely disordered. In City of God, however, Augustine recognized that even good men will struggle with temptation throughout life, at some times more intensely, at others less so. He did not teach that we can destroy all evil desire [malam concupiscentiam], “but can only refuse consent to it, as God gives us ability.” He also recognized that “however valorously we resist our vices, and however successful we are in overcoming them, yet as long as we are in this body we have always reason to say to God, ‘forgive us our debts.’”
Thus, for Augustine, the process of sanctification in this life is not necessarily about eradicating fallen desires. Rather, we form Christian character when, relying on God’s grace, we refuse to consent to temptations to sin, either in thought or in deed. “You are my friends if you do what I command.”
Ongoing struggle with temptation is an unavoidable aspect of Christian discipleship. Spiritual Friendship writers have repeatedly emphasized, however, that they are committed to mortifying all lust. And though we don’t expect complete healing of concupiscence in this life, we have found that chaste friendship can help to rightly order our desires, because true friendship desires what is truly good for a friend.
By holding that desire and temptation are just as sinful as overtly sinful acts, Burk (as well as many similar critics) obscures the one thing Augustine thinks we must do: rely on God’s strength, and refuse consent to evil desires.
Why Use the Word “Gay”?
So far I have not directly addressed the most significant source of misunderstanding with our conservative critics: our use of the word “gay.” Why not just focus on the language of spiritual friendship? In fact, we have spent a great deal of time explaining what we mean in the theological and philosophical categories of the Christian tradition. Our critics have mostly ignored this, insisting in the face of repeated denials that if we use the word “gay” we must mean that we view our sexual temptations as the core of our identity.
However, Christians not only need to understand God’s plan in creation and for sanctification; we also need to be able to engage with the surrounding culture in terms that it can understand. Consider the Apostle Paul: his letters contain sophisticated theological arguments about the Gospel, drawing extensively on Old Testament revelation. But when he preached on the Areopagus in Athens, he began by pointing to the temple to the unknown god, and quoted from pagan poets. He preached because he was “provoked” by the widespread idolatry of Athens. But he began with the good in this pagan worship.
This is the same strategy that we have taken, and we’ve said so explicitly in the past. In First Things, Wesley Hill argued that we need a bilingual pastoral theology, able to speak both the language of the created order and the language of experience. I made a similar point, also in First Things, about the need to speak both in terms of ontology (how things are) and phenomenology (how they seem to us).
The basic point here is that if gay relationships are, in part, a distortion of friendship, then there will be important points of contact between the sinful experience and what it can become, if sanctified. Rather than distance ourselves from the common experiences we share with lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, we try to invite them to take the Gospel more seriously by showing them how the distorted goods they experience could be sanctified.
Wesley Hill tried to make this point a few years ago in an essay titled, “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?” While I would not have phrased the question just that way, and responded to his post in a way that I thought provided more nuance, Hill’s essay explicitly stated that same-sex sexual desire had to be mortified, and that he was talking about sanctifying other, non-sexual aspects of gay experience. Yet critics like Rosaria Butterfield and Denny Burk ignored that distinction, and falsely claimed he was treating homosexual desire itself as morally neutral. Even after we clarified this directly on several occasions, our critics have continued repeating this mischaracterization.
This is also not a one-sided conversation about language. I have previously pointed out that the language of “same-sex attraction” blurs the boundary between sexual desires that must be mortified and other ways of being drawn to a person, which are compatible with chaste friendship. Blurring different kinds of attraction in this way actually reinforces the Freudian idea that all attraction springs from sexual attraction. Both sides of this debate need to examine how their language could convey the wrong message.
While sexual orientation should not be the basis of an all-encompassing identity, it does lead to different life experiences that produce unique challenges. To say, as Denny Burk does, that there is nothing unique about gay Christians—that our orientation, in fact, makes us more like everyone else rather than different—is to deny us ways to describe our unique, and challenging, experiences. It is particularly surprising that such criticisms often come from evangelicals, given how important personal testimonies are in the evangelical style of proclaiming the Gospel—a style that I grew up with and find very effective.
It may well be that it is imprudent to use terms like “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual” to describe our experiences. But I would be more likely to be convinced by arguments against our use of language if our critics actually engaged with the positions we have articulated, rather than simply and mistakenly asserting that we make our sexual desires the core of our identity.
I certainly don’t think that our project is beyond criticism. Testing and refinement are needed in deepening our understanding of Scripture and Christian tradition: “test everything; hold fast what is good.” But many of our critics aren’t actually identifying real problems in our writings. Rather, they claim that we hold views that we have explicitly repudiated. This does not help refine our understanding either of Christian anthropology or of good pastoral practice. It is at best misleading, and distracts us from the very pressing issues Christians face with regard to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in contemporary society.
I don’t believe my primary vocation is to respond to unreasonable critics. Spiritual Friendship and Revoice exist to help Christians—many of whom have experienced unjust rejection by other Christians—to understand how their own desires to be loved and to love can be sanctified. When I make prudential judgments about what language to use, I think more about what will help the prodigal son than what will satisfy his elder brother. However, if the recent onslaught of unreasonable criticism of Spiritual Friendship and Revoice has spurred me to articulate the theology behind our message more clearly, then I am grateful that what they meant to harm, God has used for good.
Ron Belgau is the cofounder, with Wesley Hill, of the Spiritual Friendship blog (spiritualfriendship.org). He studied philosophy at St. Louis University, where he also taught ethics, medical ethics, and philosophy of religion. He was invited to speak at the 2015 World Meeting of Families during Pope Francis’s visit to the Philadelphia, and has spoken throughout the United States, as well as in Canada and the Great Britain. In addition to Spiritual Friendship, he has been published in New Oxford Review, Notre Dame Magazine, First Things, Ethika Politika, and contributed a chapter to Venus and Virtue.