At the moment when I was the most certain of my traditional beliefs on sexuality I fell, quite by accident, very deeply in love with another man, whom I will call Andrew.
Andrew was, like me, extremely traditional in his perspectives on gay marriage. We both believed that gay marriage was an ultimately false reality, because marriage was a reality that only existed, by definition, between men and women. We believed that the overarching narrative of scripture as well as the witness of tradition affirmed that homosexual practice is outside of God’s design for humanity and is sinful. We also both believed that our current culture greatly devalues friendship love, and that gay people could find profound intimacy by rediscovering friendship built on the model of great friendships like David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, or the writings of Saint Aelred.
And yet, inexplicably, we found ourselves deeply in love. As far as I was concerned, he was it – there was no other person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. We started talking about having a home together, doing life together, perhaps even adopting. We were incandescently happy. It all felt too good to be true – I had somehow found a person with whom I could do life, and we were striving to live a model of covenant, celibate friendship, like David and Jonathan. But there was a mounting tension and anguish as well. There was a deepening sorrow that he was the man I loved the most and yet I could not touch him. I could not kiss him. I couldn’t hold his hand, or embrace him too long. There was the horrible sorrow that, if we did live together, we would have to sleep in different rooms, and that I could never wake up next to him in the morning. He was the man I wanted to share my soul with, and yet our bodies could never meet – not even for a prolonged hug – because the combined force of our sexual drives was simply too strong. We never knew where to draw the line.
It suddenly became next to impossible to tell what a “homosexual act” was. Was a quick kiss a homosexual act? Was holding hands a homosexual act? When does a hug become sinful? When you are hugging the gay man you want to spend the rest of your life with? The one you want to share your body with? Sometimes, even looking at him was a sexual act: he was the source of immeasurable beauty, and in my love for him I burned with passion to be joined to the object of my love.
I had always assumed that, somehow, the deeper the love the less powerful the sex drive – that, if I strove to love someone purely, the “disordered desire” for gay sex would subside; that if I loved someone enough I would somehow ascend to a sexless nirvana. I believed this because I had so dehumanized and belittled sexuality – especially my own homosexuality. What I discovered in real relationship was the exact opposite: the more deeply I learned to love Andrew, the more I wanted to be known by him in every way, including physically. It became torture. It was like being told to paint a picture, then having my eyes removed, or being filled with a passion to play piano then having my hands removed. The love was there – it swelled within me, a powerful tide that swept me out to sea – but there was no way I could ever express it. Marriage was off limits. Any kind of sexual intimacy was off limits. The hope of being able to share a bed was off limits. The ability to embrace freely was off limits. We were left in the tortured anticipation of a permanent courtship, destined to always love from a distance without ever coming together.
But it got worse. Andrew had struggled for many years with chastity and his call to celibacy. His struggle had become so intense, so dark, so futile, and so dangerous that he had finally given up, hoping against hope that somehow, God would forgive him and accept him anyway, despite his sexual failings. It was after he had given up that I entered his life. He tried getting back on the wagon for me, but the sheer force of his struggle started to put a strain on our relationship. I watched him suffer horribly, and I was at a loss to know how to help him. He would call me, sobbing hysterically, feeling miserable and sexually shameful. I looked desperately to the wider traditional community, searching for answers to help my partner. I knew that if we couldn’t find some solution for Andrew, it would not only destroy him but also our relationship. I refused to give in, though, and refused to accept the possibility that the situation was futile.
The only answers the wider church could give him – and that I could give him – were the answers he had heard and tried to practice for years. We told him to find a deeper prayer life, to develop greater spiritual practices, to find deep friendships, to re-evaluate his perceptions of love and friendship. It was all to no avail, because he had tried each one in innumerable different ways for years. They had all failed him. I looked at the traditional community and pleaded, “this is the best we can do? This is the best you can give him? There has to be something better. There has to be something to lead him out of this.” But there was nothing, and that was what I absolutely could not and would not accept. I was not going to resign myself to the notion that my partner was destined to suffer indefinitely with no hope of release. It was like watching a spouse die of some horrible condition, all the while being told by the doctors, “we’re sorry, we have done everything we know to do.”
I knew, though, exactly what he needed. He needed hope. He needed the possibility of one day having a partner who could love him, who could share his body as a good, wonderful and beautiful thing. He needed the option of having a partner with whom he could share his life. He needed the hope that his time in the desert would end before his death. This isn’t to say a marriage would somehow be completely fulfilling or totally happy, but the hope of it would offer the context for healing. It was not enough to invest his time in friendships, and even his spiritual disciplines fell short – he needed the affirmation that, some day, an expression of sexuality and marriage and partnership would be good. I recognized that healing was going to evade him as long as hope was never offered him. But the traditional ethic could not offer him any of those things – his desert would not release him till his death.
It reminds me of a conversation I once had with a friend in college. This friend lived with chronic debilitating pain, and she came to me in anguish, asking if I thought it would be immoral for her to have surgery to lessen her pain. She came from an extreme religious upbringing that deemed all forms of surgery sinful, and her parents were forbidding her from having the surgery. The surgery was necessary for her well-being but her religious beliefs forbade her from having it, and all she could do was go on living in pain, coping as best she could. We call my friend’s experience absurd and inhumane, but many Christians call Andrew’s experience simply one of obedience and “taking up his cross”. They would call my friend’s choice to have the surgery an act of bravery and common sense, whereas they would call Andrew’s choice to find a husband an act of weakness. All of this goes to show that there can be a disturbingly fine line between inhumanity and obedience to God.
In the end, Andrew and I broke up. He could no longer bear the threat of hurting me as he struggled violently with his sexuality, and he thought the most loving thing he could do, at that point, was to break up with me. I was heartbroken, shattered, and entered one of the darkest seasons of my life, with a broken will and spirit. In that place, all the scholars and theology and “pursuit of right belief” in the world could not reason with the grief I felt over having lost the man I dearly loved.
When I say the traditional ethic has failed, I do not mean that it is wrong. I am not writing anything on this blog to try to disprove the traditional ethic, even though I, personally, have moved beyond it, more for personal than theological reasons.
I mean that it fails to interact compassionately with the human lives it happens to be about. The most common embodiments of the traditional view are often intricate and beautiful in their theology, but detached from the lives of people, lacking in empathy and embodiment, and are therefore monstrous. When a theology is developed in isolation from the people it is about, it may have the appearance of compassion, but will be more like an education system enforced by an aloof bureaucracy. It may look good on paper to those writing it, but will ultimately work against the students it was established to serve in the first place.
And let’s face it: the overwhelming majority of the church has next to no access to the lives of gay people. The people who make decisions in the church, the people who write doctrine and statements of faith, the people who run ministries, and the lay person on the street – most of them have no inkling of what it means to be gay or to have walked intimately alongside gay people. It is, perhaps, one of the greatest acts of buffoonery in the Church – that hundreds of thousands of Christians have strong and seemingly well-developed convictions about a people group they have never met. That’s foolish, ugly, and wrong.
And this is why I tell stories. Because as long as people are detached from real lives like Andrew’s, our theology – no matter how scholarly, intelligent, or elaborate – will fail in the place it matters most: being like Christ to those who desperately need to know His love.