Tag Archive for: homosexuality and the church

Interview with Wesley Hill (Part 2)

20 Jun Andrew Byers
June 20, 2012

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.

Interview with Wesley Hill (Part 1)

18 Jun Andrew Byers
June 18, 2012

In Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, he calls his activity as an author “heuristic writing.”  That is, he writes to think, to sort, to wrestle… not necessarily to explain tidily or to make authoritarian decrees.  “Heuristic writing” captures well what we are trying to do with this blog.  Our writing is a discipline of straining to understand, a discipline of lunging forward into the fog.  Every now and then, you grab hold of something in the murk that seems quite solid, beautiful and true.

Oftentimes, you have to call out in the fog to others who may be up ahead of you a spell, hoping to pick up some response and sound out a communal path.  To close this series on “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars,” I am letting one of those voices speak, the voice of my friend Wesley Hill.

This series began when I started trying to evaluate the response to a vote against the legal possibility of same-sex marriage in North Carolina, a state in which I lived and ministered for six years.  The previous posts are exercises in slogging through some of the complexities behind the reaction of younger Christians to the church’s public discourse on moral issues (see below for the links).  Wes has just written a theological memoir about his own journey as a gay Christian (Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality).  Whether gay or straight, when it comes to discerning how the church is to engage our culture with a vision for an alternative sexual ethic, there are few voices we should prefer to hear calling back to our own from up ahead in the dark fog than Wesley Hill’s.  Dear readers: share this interview with folks—it is worth many ears….

 

Hopeful Realism: In Washed and Waiting, you recount the difficult stages of gradually confiding your sexual orientation to friends.  Not only did you “come out” as gay before your friends, but you did so in what is often understood as the most inhospitable subculture for gays, that of evangelical Christianity.  And now, you have produced a public account of your struggles in the form of a book!  How difficult has it been to “own” your sexual orientation personally, and then to share it so openly with others?

Wesley Hill: I don’t want to make it sound as though everything has been happily-ever-after since I came out, but I certainly have experienced a measure of rest and relief that comes from being truthful with myself and others. Eve Tushnet, the celibate lesbian Catholic writer, talks about how coming out can be a step towards freer, truer love of others, inasmuch as it lifts the burden of having to hide and the self-protective fear that goes along with hiding. When we’re trying to hide ourselves from others, we’re not able to love them well. In fact, we may be more prone to hurt others in our efforts to try to preserve our hiding place. And so, even as coming out can be a harrowing experience for many people, it can also lead to blessings.

HR: Horror stories circulate about the hostile reaction of Christians to someone struggling with homosexuality who has decided to come out before the church.  In your own experience, how has the church received you in your gradual openness about your own personal struggles as a gay believer?

WH: My experience in this regard has been mostly positive, with only a few exceptions. I’ve been asked to speak and lead discussions in a variety of church settings, and the most frequently asked question I get, probably, is something along the lines of, “How can we do a better job of loving gay people, whether they’re Christian or not?” I take that as a sign that many Christians, by and large, have an instinct for compassion. Having said that, I talk with a lot of gay Christians who have experienced significant rejection, in one form or another, from their churches. One person told me recently that when he came out to his pastor, the pastor’s initial response was, “Don’t tell anyone else in the congregation.” I’m not sure leaders realize how much an exhortation like that can reinforce the sense of shame and guilt that many gay Christians feel simply for experiencing an unchosen same-sex attraction, regardless of what they choose to do with that attraction. Another friend shared with me his experience of being at an informal church event recently — at a mainstream evangelical church — and hearing multiple “gay jokes.” “That showed me that I still can’t come out to my friends,” he said ruefully. And sadly, I’m not sure how uncommon my friend’s experience is in the evangelical church.

HR: Heterosexual Christians are often at a loss to know how to relate to gay brothers and sisters in the faith.  What are the most common myths straight Christians maintain, even if unwittingly, about homosexuality?

WH: I remember giving a talk about loneliness once and a youth minister came up to me afterwards and said, “Can you help me understand the sense of lack that you feel? Why is it that you feel a deficit in your masculinity, and how can we help fill that?” This puzzled me, because I hadn’t said anything in my talk about feeling a lack of male affection. But this pastor had probably heard the common origins story for male homosexuality that describes same-sex attraction as an attempt to “make up for” the distance a boy feels from his father when he’s growing up. Once the boy hits puberty, that hunger for father-intimacy becomes eroticized, and that’s why (many) men are gay (or so the story goes).  My concern here is that we are so quick to impose one narrative that may, indeed, be helpful for some people on others for whom it isn’t helpful. Among other helpful changes we could make, perhaps one of the primary things the church could do is stop pretending as if one of its favorite “origin stories” were true for all gay men, period. That story doesn’t seem to illumine much of my experience, and I’ve heard other gay friends of mine say the same thing. We need to become better listeners and stop assuming that we can know ahead of time what counsel we need to give. We need to be willing to admit that we don’t know why some people are gay, and therefore we don’t know — apart from the hard work of actually cultivating genuine friendship — how we can best support and encourage and love them on their various pathways.

HR: This seems to be the testimony of some gay Christians: “Once I embraced my sexual identity and began practicing it, I then drew closer to Christ.”  You have chosen a different route, operating with an entirely different logic.  It seems to me as though your testimony could be expressed in this way: “Once I embraced my sexual identity and surrendered any hope of practicing it, I then drew closer to Christ.”  Is this an accurate assessment?  How would you account for the disparity in these two testimonies?  Are both equally valid options?

WH: One of the things we have to face up to honestly as Christians is the fact that behaviors and choices that, on a traditional Christian account of things, are “sinful” are also, nonetheless, liberating and peace-giving for some people. Remember Psalm 73: righteousness doesn’t always lead to observable flourishing! Sometimes when we seek to communicate the gospel, we feel that we need to “unmask” the peace and happiness that unbelievers say they experience before we can talk to them about Christ. “Your life is really miserable,” we say, “so you need to come to Jesus.” But is that right? What if the person replies, “But my life isn’t miserable! On the contrary!” I wonder if Bonhoeffer’s reflections on “religious blackmail” could help us here as we ponder how to speak to gay people about the historic Christian teaching on sexual ethics without attacking their own gay partnerships as just obviously “bad” for them. To someone who is in a loving partnership, that attack will either ring hollow or be profoundly hurtful or offensive. I think of a passage from Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology in which he says that we Christians ought to be able to recognize that some people who are rejecting Christian truth often live quite “healthy” lives, when you judge them by the standard of, say, the mental health profession. “Conversions to other religions or yogas or therapies may,” Jenson writes, “in their own ways be describable as ‘forgiveness’ or ‘liberation’ and so on. To such possibilities the gospel’s messengers can only say: ‘We are not here to entice you into our religion by benefits allegedly found only in it. We are here to introduce you to the true God, for whatever he can do for you — which may well be suffering and oppression.” Applying this kind of perspective to homosexuality, I’d like to say that gay partnerships may provide a measure of “liberation” for some and that following the historic Scriptural teaching on either marriage between one man and one woman or celibacy may be quite difficult and not obviously or empirically “good” for us, even though we trust that, in the long run, obeying God does enable true flourishing — and celibacy can indeed be joyful and life-enhancing, even in the meantime.

[to be continued.... Part 2 will be up on Wednesday]

 

Other posts 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?

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