This is the second part of our interview with Wesley Hill, author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. (Click here for Part 1). His book is a theological memoir about his decision as a gay Christian to embrace what is often called “Side B”—the choice of a celibate lifestyle. Wes just finished his PhD in New Testament Studies at Durham University and will assume a post later this summer at Trinity School for Ministry, an Anglican theological seminary in Pittsburgh.
Hopeful Realism: In reading your book, I was rather astonished to find that three of the most helpful factors in your struggle with sexual orientation are three factors often deemed threatening for many other gays—ecclesiology (the church), eschatology (the return of Christ… which includes some form of a final reckoning), and Scripture (with all those harsh statements about homosexual sin). For many gay Christians, the church has been found inhospitable; and eschatology, with its associations with divine judgment, is used in many circles as a tool for bludgeoning the sexually immoral. As for Scripture, straight Christians inhabiting the pews of those accepting churches are often well acquainted and all too keen to cite the biblical texts that decry homosexuality as sinful. Yet for you, the church, the end of this age, and the Bible are emblematic of hope and beauty. Can you explain this a bit?
Wesley Hill: Although I am well aware of the church’s failures, particularly when it comes to loving gay people, I’m also aware that celibacy is impossible to maintain, at least as the Christian tradition conceives it, without the loving commitment of a community of fellow believers. And that leads me to seek out that kind of community in church, despite the ways the church can wound people like me, often without even realizing they’re doing it (for instance, by gearing all their programming to families with kids). I recognize that if I’m going to be able to love and be loved as a celibate gay Christian, I have to have friends, and God has given the local church as the place to nurture Christian friendship. Yes, it often fails miserably at this task. But I keep going back, expecting to find grace with all my other sinful spiritual siblings, as we together, straight or gay, look to Jesus for the hope we need to keep going. It’s the ideal of what I once heard an Orthodox priest call “parish celibacy.” As for eschatology, trusting in the promise of a new creation and the resurrection of the body is the only way I know to persevere while experiencing the sufferings and difficulties that come with celibacy. When Paul wanted to encourage believers to endure their various trials and weaknesses, he pointed forward to the eternal weight of glory that would make any temporal suffering pale by comparison (see 2 Corinthians 4 and Romans 8). I find that hope in Scripture — that every tear will be wiped away, that “everything sad will come untrue” (Tolkien) — and that is my encouragement as I seek to live a Christian life on a daily basis.
HR: Let’s talk about the church’s public discourse on homosexuality. The recent vote on Amendment 1 in North Carolina ignited a great deal of controversy among Christians, some of whom passionately and vocally supported the bill with others denouncing it as a faulty means of public engagement. Should the church fight social issues through government legislation? Do you have any recommendations for how the church’s public discourse on homosexuality should change?
WH: Although many of us are agreed on the goal – that we ought to continue to uphold the traditional definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman – I think Christians will legitimately arrive at different conclusions about how best to work towards that outcome as citizens of the U.S. Some of us will seek to argue persuasively against gay marriage in the public square without appealing explicitly to the Bible or Christian tradition. Others of us may conclude that the best way to advocate for traditional marriage is not by throwing all our energy into the legislative arena but rather by, as Paul Griffiths has memorably put it, “burnish[ing] the practice of marriage… until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.” In other words, we may decide a better strategy is embodying “a more excellent way” rather than seeking at all costs to keep gay marriage from being legalized. Certainly, I think, the primary focus of our efforts should be on “preserving traditional marriage” in the church – and repenting for the ways that heterosexual believers have undermined it far more than gay people have. At the very least, I would like to see the church cease to scapegoat gays and lesbians for the breakdown of “the traditional family” and acknowledge its own failures in this regard. As my friend Ron Belgau has put it, “If Christians want to make any serious effort to promote Christian teaching about sexuality in contemporary Western culture, they will need to begin by recognizing that the sexual revolution is not just a problem out there, caused by secularists, hedonists, tax collectors, and sinners. It is caused, at least in part, by us. We have to remove the log from our own eye before we can help others.”
HR: Back to the issue of the Bible and homosexuality. Many gay Christians are reading the passages on homosexuality differently from you. When it comes to homosexuality, are the Scripture texts muddled? Is there hermeneutical space for differing interpretations?
WH: Those of us who maintain the “traditional” viewpoint on this — that the church ought not to bless same-sex marriages — need to help people see that the historic Christian opposition to same-sex sexual partnerships does not simply rest on a few isolated prooftexts, like Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 (as vitally important as those texts are!). It is, rather, part of the larger fabric of Scriptural teaching on marriage, procreation, child-rearing, celibacy, friendship, etc. So Genesis 1-2, Matthew 19, and Ephesians 5 are just as crucial, or even more crucial, for forming Christian sexual ethics than Romans 1 is. Chris Roberts, in his excellent book Creation and Covenant, has shown how all the major strands of the Christian tradition have upheld the significance of sexual difference (our creation as male and female) for the moral theology of marriage, and that that has been the basis of their opposition to same-sex partnerships. If we could help people see this more holistic vision, then perhaps the church’s continued opposition to gay marriage wouldn’t seem to rest on such an arbitrary, flimsy basis. It isn’t just about picking and choosing a few random verses and building a sexual ethic out of such fragments. It’s rather about a coherent vision — a kind of seamless garment — of Christian teaching about our creation in God’s image and the vocations that flow from our creation and redemption.
HR: Finally, an eschatological question. Jesus once told his questioners that in the resurrection of the dead, there will be no marriage. Why is this, do you think? And what are the implications here for those who struggle with homosexuality and have embraced celibacy, as well as for those of us, gay or straight, who are married?
WH: I don’t think I have a good answer for why Jesus said this, but I do think one of the outcomes is that it opens up a way to understand celibacy as a symbol of life in the kingdom of God. If there will be no marriage in God’s future, then singleness can serve as a signpost of our present anticipation of that future. Rodney Clapp has written, “The single Christian ultimately must trust in the resurrection. The married, after all, can fall back on the passage of the name to children, and on being remembered by children. But singles mount the high wire of faith without the net of children and their memory. If singles live on, it will be because there is a resurrection. And if they are remembered, they will be remembered by the family called church.” In other words, when Jesus pictured the coming kingdom as a reality without marriage as we know it, he thereby sanctified the vocation of celibacy — and he showed us how to practice it by pointing us to the hope of the resurrection.
To keep up with what Wes is reading and thinking, check out his blog, “Writing in the Dust.”
Other posts at Hopeful Realism on Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:
At War with the Culture Wars: When it comes to high-profile moral issues, younger evangelicals seem more at odds with older evangelicals than with secular culture.
“Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church”: Are younger believers too hip to worship with “Aunt Gertrude”? (What about in heaven?).
Preview and Review of “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars: What the younger generations’ reactions to older generations’ approaches to society/culture may be doing to our ecclesiology. Plus, what is ahead…
Sex in the City on a Hill: The most fundamental means of promoting an alternative sexual ethic is to practice one. So how are evangelicals doing when it comes to the issues of abstinence, celibacy, and sexual purity? How are Christians doing with the sacred model of heterosexual marriage?
Interview with Wesley Hill (Part 1): the first part of the interview above.