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I am convinced that the Christian life is about formation–formation that is never meant to end.
It is a continual unfolding and expansion of our capacity and embodiment of love for God and Neighbor. It’s just this simple/complex: giving and receiving love.
Some might describe this as worship, the “chief end of man [sic!],” or our human telos. I call it the point of our human journey–not a point to be reached, but a point on the horizon that keeps moving out ahead of us even as we grow and expand ever towards it. It is why we remember our baptism, our initiation into the life of Jesus. It is why we celebrate a meal of grace together, to re-member the love we have received and the love we give.
And in the center of all this unfolding and becoming more loving, we have desire. Desire for connection, for belonging, for recognition, for meaning, for attachment, for pleasure. For now, I’ll describe desire as the longing that grows out of our deep needs and drives us past their fulfillment and into the realm of joy. I’m sure this is incomplete, but it’s what I am intuiting right now. It’s beyond hunger or want–it is rooted in our deeply human createdness (or givenness) for com-munion, com-panionship, com-passion–it’s the movement toward being with rather than being alone.
Desire has the tendency to be treated with disdain (as in certain types of asceticism) or deification (as in certain types of hedonism). I think of it more as a technology–a technique which can be used for leading us to flourish or to self-destruct. Thus, the importance of shaping desire in order to use its power for increasing life rather than diminishing it.
Sexual desire in particular is very powerful. It is rooted in our need for human connection and intimacy. Physiologically, it is connected with survival of our species and yet, it is so much more than that. Sexual desire can function to lead us into vulnerable intimacy that leads to fuller expressions of love and compassion in the world. Sexual desire, when misshapen, can also lead to objectification of self and others, to relational manipulation, to social oppression, and to patterns of addiction and abuse.
Sexual desire is deeply connected to both pleasure and attachment.
So, how does the framework of Christian formation help us think about shaping sexual desire?
Christian formation suggests the discipleship of desire–that is to say, for those who follow the way of Jesus, we are invited into ways of life that employ our desires to increase our love for both God and neighbor. The measure, then, of whether or not a desire is leading us toward flourishing (holiness) or diminishment (sin), is whether we are becoming more or less loving of God and our neighbors.
Or, as Jesus tells it, “you will know them by their fruit” and “they will know that you are my disciples because you love one another.”
So lets talk about how sexual desire functions.
Sexuality is peculiar. It’s particular. What turns a person on–the particular path of firing neurons that signal pleasure is as unique as each individual’s physiology. This is true.
Sexuality is socialized. Our minds and bodies are impressionable and cultural norms as well as particular social interactions throughout our lives shape us.
There’s probably not a theological need to sort those two dimensions out.
I know, that’s a big claim, but let me make my point. If the measure of Christian discipleship is loving God and neighbor, and a particular sexual expression, whether individually peculiar or culturally pervasive, can be weighed for its ability to lead toward or away from love of God and Neighbor, then, it seems like that’s the place where we should be putting our energy.
The question of nature or nurture about any dimension of sexual desire becomes quite irrelevant in the face of the question: How do I steward my desire to increase my love of God and neighbor?
Within the heart of orthodox Christian theology is the doctrine of the Trinity–the notion that God exists, internal to Godself, in community and also, that God creates the world for community with God.
Indeed, the kind of community that God seeks with the world is such that God is constantly becoming vulnerable to humans through relationship and commitment in order to bring them near to God (See the biblical origin story of Noah and the flood, where afterwards, God’s covenant with the people is to place a weapon, God’s own bow, in the sky, pointed back at God, making God vulnerable to consequence should he ever do such violence to humanity [I know there’s lots to take issue with there, but it’s the theological claim of the story that I want to hold on to], also see the incarnation of Jesus, God becoming an infant human being in order to live among humanity for the sake of restoring community with us).
These are stories about God’s moving towards us for community by becoming vulnerable. And that’s really what love is about, coming close enough to someone else to embrace them; to lower our guard and let them within touching distance of our bodies and our hearts. I argue that sexual desire is about shaping our need for community into the action of love, with our bodies and our emotions, to draw us into vulnerable space where we truly see and are seen by another.
Commitment to a partner offers a level of security that can serve to increase our vulnerability. This is part of why marriage is so hard–the increase in vulnerability does not guarantee connection and feelings of love–what it does guarantee is a deeper experience of the longing and underlying need for those things. Where love is present, desire is both met and increased, so that when we are vulnerable and loved, we are both satisfied and made more hungry. Thus the point–or telos–of desire, keeps moving out ahead of us, forcing us to make the choice of becoming more vulnerable in community or more isolated in our attempt to hold on to something more comfortable.
By mutually honing desire in a relationship with a partner, both people increase their capacity for vulnerability, developing compassion, empathy, and finding some sense of home while also feeding desire which drives them to search for more (and in the Christian framework, that more is the trinitarian God, reaching out to us in mutual vulnerability).
Theologian Eugene F. Rogers Jr. speaks of God’s desire for otherness in community. He suggests that it is this otherness that draws our vulnerability and relationship and is at the center of committed sexual relationships. For heterosexual persons, this vulnerability to another is drawn out through their sexual desire for those of other gender and physical sex chariteristics than their own. Thus, their desire leads heterosexual people into heterosexual relationships and the vulnerability that leads them into loving relationships that shape them for greater love of God and neighbor.
According to Rogers (You can read his whole argument here), The point of sexual partnership is to expose our vulnerability in order to draw us out of ourselves and into relationship where the harm of sin may be exposed and worked on. He works with the classic definition of sin as isolation and separation from God and others and thus sees committed sexual relationships as a ground for sanctification (restoring relationship with God and others) to occur.
Rogers then asks how such vulnerability can occur in the lives of people who sexually and emotionally desire people of the same gender:
“For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires. The crucial question is, What sort of created diversity will lead one to holiness?” (From this article; same as link above)
Essentially, what Rogers is getting at is this: the movement of vulnerability that draws a person into a relationship in which holiness (and I’ll define that as love of God and neighbor) is increased, is born out of the shape of their own desires. Given that such a relationship requires consent and con-sensuality, there are obviously certain relationships that do not fit the bill–the red-herring examples of bestiality and pedophilia and perhaps the less obvious, relationships where the desire (or orientation) of the partners do not match.
Now here, I speak candidly about my own experience. I am not dispensing advice or judgement on anyone who may find themselves in any similar situation.
I was married for 4.5 years to a woman. The details of how and why belong to both of us, and I’m more than willing to speak of my own experience in a face-to-face conversation. My former spouse would have her own story to tell.
What is clear to me is that the relationship taught us both a great deal about ourselves, each other, community, home, vulnerability, and desire. What is also clear to me is that we came to a point where we recognized that because our sexual desires lacked a necessary element of mutual reciprocity, we were unable to call each other into the kind of deep vulnerability that would allow us to continue to move into greater wholeness.
There was too great a gap between desire and fulfillment and we found the honest and loving thing to do was to let each other go, in order to give us both the chance to find someone with whom our desires could be met with enough mutuality to not only open us to vulnerability, but to also lead us into fulfillment that could increase vulnerability throughout our lives.
In a paragraph, that looks somewhat tidy. Over the course of several years it has felt like death, hell, and resurrection–often with all three simultaneously braided into one strand, pulling me forward into acceptance and celebration of the life that I have been given as a gay man.
While our marriage was enough to awaken my desire and draw me into enough vulnerability to heal and accept grace to the point that I could love myself and accept my being gay, it was not the relationship that could feed that awakened desire. This was perhaps the most painful realization of my life–until I realized that there was a mirror truth; not only was I not being fully called out by my partner, but I was unable to fully call her out in her own desires.
Looking back, I see many reasons why I got married. In addition to loving my spouse, I had been told by my culture and my faith that the one way to express my sexuality was in heterosexual partnership.
What had been rightly identified as the need for another in committed relationship, had been narrowly defined in terms of the normative experience of the majority. For people with heterosexual desires who find themselves in a relationship, heterosexual partnership is exactly the kind of relationship in which vulnerability, and thus holiness, can be fostered.
But I am a cis-gendered male, attracted to bodies of the XY persuasion. And a relationship that could not fully honor this important aspect of my humanity was unable to offer the kind of vulnerability that I and my partner each needed and deserved.
It doesn’t really matter why I find myself drawn out in relationship with other men, I simply do. And so the question I face is how to follow that desire in a way that leads me to greater vulnerability and increased love for God and neighbor.
Should it be any surprise that that would look like a committed partnership with someone who can reflect desire back to me with mutuality so that we are both called into vulnerability and wholeness? If my gay desire, when formed in this kind of relationship can lead me to love God and neighbor more fully, isn’t that good news (gospel)?
I believe it would be absurd to suggest a gay relationship is a path to holiness for a straight person. I also believe that it is just as absurd to suggest that a straight relationship is a path to holiness for a gay person. Vulnerability with a partner requires some measure of unquenched desire intermingled with fulfillment of that desire. This is what keeps drawing us deeper into relationship–with a partner, with God, and with others in community. I will be so bold as to claim that Christian communities that push heterosexual relationships on homosexual people are guilty of perpetuating harmful cultural pressures and, more, are hindering the work of God in these people’s lives. It’s as harmful as pressuring straight people to be in gay relationships.
For those who would suggest monasticism as the only option for Christian homosexuals, I would refer you to the Apostle Paul’s advice on monasticism to everyone in the Christian community: He’d rather everybody be monastic, but he doesn’t want anybody to be overcome by their desire, so he recommends for those who want an intimate partner, a commitment of partnership designed to shape that desire towards wholeness and service of God and neighbor (1 Corinthians 7).
Again, what we begin to realize is that the measure of holiness of a relationship has little-to-nothing to do with which appendages are going into what orifices–instead, it’s about how the heart of the person is being led out through desire into greater openness to relationship with another person. This is why it’s about sexual desire as well as attachment–why this still applies to relationships where one or both partners cannot be sexually active due to any number of factors.
And thus, my gay desire is deeply good news.
Because the messages of society and my faith were shaped in a way that reinforced the norms of the majority, I believed, while growing up, that my inability to connect with a woman in the way I was “supposed to” was a deep flaw in my humanity. I remember being a teenager and looking at gay pornography and thinking about the Bible verse that says “no temptation has seized you, except what is common to man [sic].” And I remember thinking, I’m not sure that this is all that common. In fact, I’m pretty sure my guy friends aren’t getting turned on by Ryan Gosling or Josh Harnett [don’t judge my taste, I was in high school].
When I finally began to appreciate that my desires are simply my own, I began to realize that, I too contain the capacity for deep vulnerability and connection–it’s simply directed toward men rather than women. I also began to realize that my desires weren’t the work of evil. If anything, the work of evil was the way that my church, my family, and my society had tried to convince me I was incapable of real love and connection, and to shame me away from the kind of relationship that could lead me into such goodness and the kind of flourishing that would awaken my soul and expand my capacity for God and neighbor.
That my desire has been so resilient, despite a culture and church and internalized oppression that were laid against it, is evidence of God’s deep goodness in calling us into community through desire–and specifically through our sexual desire for mutual love with someone with whom we can spend our lives pleasurably calling each other into vulnerability and wholeness.
Note to readers: Thanks for your patience between posts. I’ve needed to step back from blogging in the last week or two in order to ground myself in the midst of some difficult situations. Ultimately, I think this makes for more thoughtful writing when I do post. I’m grateful to see so many people reading the posts and I’m grateful for the emails and messages. My hope is for this series to help open space for conversations and I’m grateful for any level of engagement you’re able to offer along the way.
Read part 8 here.