My lofty hope in writing this essay is to shed light on the confrontation between traditional Christianity and progressive homosexuality in the American context. Ultimately, I wish to suggest that perhaps these two embattled communities need one another more than they need the cultural positions of power for which they vociferously vie, amidst gnashing of teeth and the enraged proliferation of Twitter posturing. I have attempted to combine my knowledge of history, philosophy, and theology into a picture of reality that better explains the historical contingency of either group and imagines a potential gateway through which to escape the cultural milieu which binds them both to their own detriment. I believe this escape can be accomplished by a renewed explication of Christian Eros, both in theory and especially practice, which can in turn build a bridge between the Christian and LGBT communities long thought either impossible or undesirable. That said, as a traditionalist, heterosexual Christian, I have strived to maintain a sense of humility and openness to those communities in which I am not substantially a member, while saving the better part of my convictions for the traditional Christianity from which I spring forth. Also of note, in this essay I do not consider “liberal Christian” positions in depth, for to do so would lead me beyond my purpose. In short, I tend to agree with the criticisms that we read contemporary homosexuality into Biblical context anachronistically, but I disagree with “liberal” positions on the positive aspects about what Christian sexuality entails. Finally, I intentionally remain vague in my definitions of “Church” and “LGBT,” which notwithstanding their various nuances, work most effectively as short-hand for the broad cultural communities frequently in competition.
A vast amount of ink has been spilled regarding the history of sexuality, but homosexuality must be understood within that frame. While it would be beyond my purpose to elucidate a complete historic overview, the primary thing is the existence of the history, which reveals that sexuality is a malleable thing, that there are significant elements of both its interior self-understanding as well as its external expression that ebb and flow with the contingencies of time and place. Nevertheless, the fact that we can speak meaningfully of a history of “sexuality” shows that in spite of its historical contingency and personal fluidity, sexuality has achieved a permanent place-holder in human experience; there is something unique to human sexuality as such, a defining, universal aspect that at least to our comprehension has endured all historical irruption. There has not been, nor do we know that there can be, an actual asexual human society. Even the term “asexual” defines itself in relation to the sexual, and at once bolsters that claim of inherent human sexuality and our inability to escape its communal presence. A truly “asexual society” would not have the category by which to define itself as “asexual” any more than we can meaningfully consider the experience of being “a-sporogenetic.” We can then say that human sexuality is intrinsic and inescapable to the human experience, even when we perceive it in its circumstantial absence of activity. Sexuality is unremittingly significant to what it is to be human. Concomitantly, what it is to be human then must bear upon what it means to be sexual.
Therefore, changing notions of sexuality must relate to changing notions of the human person as they develop over time. Useful characterizations of the anthropological shifts in self-understanding are commonly recognized in minimally three historical eras: The Premodern, the Modern, and the nebulous Postmodern periods. Premodern man corresponds most obviously to our advanced imaginary of the natural pagan and his outlook. In this view, the world is charged with meaning, and man is an odd interloper in a grand cosmos of gods and energies struggling for the realization of their differing ends. Man, in this mind, is dust passing in the eternal return of the predestined cosmos, almost entirely at the mercy of the surrounding powers. In the thought of Charles Taylor, he is “porous,” indicating his identity is constantly influenced by the cosmos. Humanity’s goal in the pagan world is to perceive the true reality behind the temporal and spatial forms of experience and become in tune with that reality. Religion becomes humanity’s means to agency and connection with the cosmos. In his influential treatise, The Sacred and the Profane, religious historian Mircea Eliade explored the near universal experience of ancient religious man, homo religiosus. Homo religiosus naturally perceived “that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real [emphasis mine].” The Premodern man at his best was not so much an unscientific and superstitious bumbler as he was a natural mystic and deep contemplative of the world as it truly is. He lived in a world of the metaphysical, where the post-Cartesian separation between self and the cosmos was inconceivable. As theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart recently writes in the Notre Dame journal, Church Life, “Again, however, for the peoples of late Graeco-Roman antiquity, it made perfect sense to think of spiritual reality as more substantial, powerful, and resourceful than any animal body could ever be… It was this evanescent life, lived in a frail and perishable animal frame, that was regarded as the poorer, feebler, more ghostly of the two conditions; spiritual existence was something immeasurably mightier, more robust, more joyous, more plentifully alive.” Spiritual man found the whole of himself in an interrelation with all things.
Skipping ahead a number of centuries from the heights of pagan Premodernity, the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment, and the “Modern” mind began to emerge in earnest. In distinction from the Premodern outlook, the Modern mind (or more fittingly “brain”) contrasted itself with the onerous metaphysics of the medieval scholastics while maintaining their absolute faith in human reason. “Modernity” is perhaps best understood as a sort of scientific optimism, that the world is ultimately material (for pragmatic purposes) and ordered; man can understand this order and manipulate it towards his ends. To the good Modernist, the gods have been tamed, not as much by their dubiousness as through their insignificance to the Modern’s practical ends. Deism is the natural religion of Modernism, where God is arguably necessitated as a theoretical guarantor of order and reason in the universe, as most famously asserted by Rene Descartes. Francis Bacon could be touted as the Modern man par excellence. He proclaims in one of his telling quotes among many, “For man being the minister and interpreter of nature, acts and understands so far as he has observed of the order, the works and mind of nature, and can proceed no further; for no power is able to loose or break the chain of causes, nor is nature to be conquered but by submission: whence those twin intentions, human knowledge and human power, are really coincident; and the greatest hindrance to works is the ignorance of causes.” In Bacon’s world, man can understand nature in its physical causes, but no further, and knowledge of those causes grants man the power to finally submit nature to his will for the betterment of his condition. In the same vein, it was hoped that a complete scientific picture of the operations of human beings could reveal the most essential aspects of what we are to the benefit of solving all humanity’s problems.
Finally, the Postmodern mind is perhaps first given voice in the prophetic Nietzsche: “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” The Postmodern no longer sees the world as an external material entity with strict rules which we can passively discover, but rather as contextually formed at every turn by social constructions imbued with political, linguistic, and other biases. I would argue in most general terms that Postmodernism is the final fruition of the optimistic faith of Modernity properly turned on itself: instead of seeing the world as ordered and material, even the most basic foundations of existence become contingencies of the human will to meaning, and the human being herself is a production of society. Objective reason is unmasked as subjective will. “Reality,” at its very core, is an artifice from which we can be liberated as we re-establish it to suit our purposes. If the Premodern sought to see the “face” behind the cosmos, and individuals became persons through “having a face,” Postmodernism literally “de-faces.” Most vital to this project is the realization that humanity can liberate itself from “human nature” and “nature,” since these categories were always historical rather than immutable elements of existence. Jean Jacques Rousseau was first to recognize the historical contingency of man’s nature, contra Aristotle, seeing him as something inherently good yet corrupted by his surrounding society. Two centuries later, Michel Foucault and his peers turned the concept of “natural desires” and “nature’s laws” on their head. He questions, “What desire can be contrary to nature since it was given to man by nature itself?” Regarding sex, in his first volume of History of Sexuality, he declares that sex is fundamentally about bodies and pleasure. In other words, the notion of dominating nature in accord with its laws does not go far enough, as we are member to nature, and must escape from its domination, to include its laws. If our desires conflict with nature, then so much the worse for nature. We are nothing until we create ourselves, and nature will be bent and broken to serve that purpose. One can distinguish echoes of the Premodern, except in this form the powers of the cosmos are no longer mysterious and transcendent, but unmasked and immanent. Man is finally free to remake himself in his own image.
Of course, this historical narrative is necessarily brief and obscures the complex interrelations between all these broad timeframes. One of these complexities involves the integral interplay of Christendom across this spectrum. At the height of the Premodern world came what can be termed the Christian Revolution. Christianity inverted much of the value system of the pagan world by imbuing every human being with personhood, and not mere personhood as understood by the Romans (a “face” before the law), but the status of divinity (a “face” before the face of God), the very image of God. More maddening to the elites of the ancient world, Christians longed for martyrdom, ascetic obedience, and suffering, as God revealed Himself in these very aspects on the cross, urging His disciples to seek life through death. As St. Matthew quotes Jesus in his Gospel, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will gain it (Matt. 16:24-25).” As the Gospels display, such a teaching is anathema to the wealthy and the influential.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Christians of the early Church were largely social outcasts: the poor, women, and slaves, who suddenly found themselves on equal footing with the societal elites in the Kingdom of God. Christian values such as “mercy” or “unconditional love” were ludicrous to the Premodern elites’ hierarchy of values. Christian virtue undermined the very nature of justice upon which they relied. David Bentley Hart refers to this in an earlier article in Church Life, stating, “The Christian vision of reality was nothing less than (to borrow a phrase from Friedrich Nietzsche’s) a “transvaluation of all values,” a profound revision of the moral and conceptual categories by which human beings understand themselves and one another and their places within the world, one that took root and grew principally in consciences rather than in political arrangements.” Nevertheless, Christianity’s pagan detractors intuited the potential of the Christian ethic to tear asunder the hierarchy of values upon which they contentedly maintained their social and political order. They most feared the novel assertion that human dignity was universal, most evidently for the lowest of social station. To assume Christianity was merely a natural evolution of Greek thought mixed with Jewish apocalyptic culture (a popular academic trend) is almost a willing blindness to the radical departure of the early Church from both Greek and Jewish wisdom at the core of its ethos. Paradoxically, to the Greek they were nonsensical and earthly, whereas to the Jew they were dangerously otherworldly and theologically anti-traditional.
What must be understood is that Christian theology and anthropology arose in contradistinction to its Premodern settings, for while the world embodied the cosmic powers and remained rife with misfortune, Christ had overcome the world (John 16:33). The impact of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God cannot be overstated in the consequences for humanity’s self-understanding in the once all-powerful and oft uncaring cosmos, with its enslavement to spiritual powers and guarantee of death. The eternal God entered into the ephemeral world and conquered it, liberating all creation and all peoples who would unite themselves with Him. Christ literally conquered Death. So while certainly revolutionary, early Christianity operated in a Premodern context, and it took for granted those assumptions in its evangelical mission. Within this setting arises the unique place of sexuality within Christian anthropological thought. Christian sexuality, properly constituted, took on a position in deep conflict with its cultural context, following in the ethos of martyrdom, but still framed by Premodern anthropological premises. Marriage and sexuality, once subordinated to a common good, or a particular social milieu, or a pagan means of celebrating the gods, could now participate in an entirely new and liberated light.
Many Christians urged celibacy as a freedom from the social constraints of marriage and the enticement of the earthly passions, but even in the married life, Christianity developed an ethic of mutual submission of love to the other, viewing marriage as a form of martyrdom in its more advanced theological understanding. Sexuality itself developed over time in Christian thought as an icon of the Divine Trinity, a reflection of the unity of the Three in One, unified in love and while respecting the freedom of each Person. This love outpours into creation and life-giving, which corresponds to sexuality most obviously in child-bearing, but even more importantly in the union of man and woman. The sexes reflected different but complementary embodiments of the Godhead, persons at once distinct but unified. Marriage became a symbolic, didactic image of the relationship between Christ and His Church, where Christ is the Bridegroom who gives His life for the Church, His Bride. These visions of love were absent of any conversation of power relations or self-fulfillment. Rather, they gloried in the powerlessness of self-giving before the Divine beauty of the Other, first and foremost, God. These relationships demanded a complete freedom of giving, for the Persons of the Godhead are free; love is impossible without freedom and without distinction. Sexuality necessarily involves embodied persons, not bodies disavowed of subjectivity or subjects regardless of embodiment. Theologian Paul Evdomikov sums up the Christian tradition of marriage as not dependent on the “order of the day,” but rather on the “order of the last day.” It reveals an interior reality in an outward manifestation which in turn symbolizes a cosmic telos (or purpose). St. John Chrysostom exhorts, “How is marriage a mystery? The two have become one. This is not an empty symbol. They have not become the image of anything on earth, but of God Himself… She [Eve] was made from his [Adam’s] side; so they are two halves of one organism. God calls her a ‘helper’ to demonstrate their unity…” Love, marriage, and sexuality are all iconic of the communion of all creation in God, a reality both already present and still coming, which we are called to see and to manifest.
Here we speak in ideals only practically attainable in the fullness of God’s grace. However, such iconic and divine-relational ideals of the sexual act still direct persons and cultures, and these ideals fit in quite naturally with the Premodern person’s self-understanding as member to the divinely charged and mysterious cosmos. Human beings were “heavy” beings, constantly in connection with an inherently meaningful world, and their thoughts and actions mattered in the cosmological schema. Our thoughts and actions helped to re-form the world as well as ourselves, not as self-directed projects, but as participants in an interconnected cosmos. As humanity’s anthropological self-conception developed into its Modern and Postmodern forms, not only did humanity’s way of looking at the world subtly shift, but also its interpretative ability to confront this past experiential viewpoint on its own terms. In the Modern age came an over-emphasis on sheer biological reality as divorced from a spiritual mode of relational being in an enchanted cosmos. As an almost natural reaction, Romanticism was the unsuccessful counter-movement of the 19th century which attempted to imbue the beauty of nature with the transcendent elements once reserved for God or the gods. In the Postmodern mind we witness the final break between mind and cosmos, where cosmos is subordinated to a self-realizing/self-projecting dialectic, utterly divorced from both God and nature or any constraining external force. Unfortunately, the Church during its own disruptive history contentedly rested upon its cultural laurels in terms of addressing these hard anthropological questions, more often than not granting too much leeway to Modern and Postmodern assumptions about reality as they arose. Christian culture yielded to the philosophy of cultural moments, as opposed to reinterpreting cultural moments by its own light. As a result, Christian culture lost its natural understanding of its own anthropological thesis, and therefore lost its full understanding of sexuality on its own terms. Whenever the Church values its position of power and comfort in the world over its mission, it succumbs to the world instead of transforming it, and she effectively becomes irrelevant.
In consideration of this history, I argue the Church has a historical, theological, and Scriptural stance in conflict with contemporary homosexual practice. However, the hard question regarding “homosexual persons” is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Homosexuality as such was not a term or identity modifier prior to Sigmund Freud’s contribution to the anthropological question in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In his account, humanity suffers from a fundamental and subconscious repression of the libido, resulting in all forms of psychological malady. To critique the antiquated specificities of Freud is old-hat, but his core theses proved foundational for Western man’s self re-conception. From Freud’s internal gaze into the individual’s sexual passions, the sexual question departed from a central concern of child-bearing, fidelity, and avoidance of promiscuity and perversion, and instead became one of satisfaction, desire, and fulfillment—a liberation from our self-repression by the super ego. Upon continual analysis, trends appeared revealing new “categories” of people who were unidentified prior to this novel movement of thought. To be perfectly clear, the claim is not that homosexuality did not exist, nor that it didn’t even organize itself in terms of language and community indicators in a retrospective glance, but rather that homosexuals did not exist as a specific identity type. Homosexual persons were highly particular to their culture, were oft sexually fluid, and were lacking a sense of themselves as an “Other” group (as opposed to confining themselves to a status of “practitioner,” whether those practices were committed in the shadows of the Victorian era or in the full light of the Athenian symposium). Freud gave homosexuals a category of being (elevating action and desire to a level of identity) by placing sexual desire at the center of the homosexual’s psyche as the core motivator of their personhood.
Interestingly, heterosexuality and homosexuality developed at the same moment in the same sense. I found Michael Hannon’s essay at First Things critical in enlightening my understanding on this progression. The distinction initially arose for the problematic purpose of justifying heterosexual sodomitic acts with the defense that such actions were “naturally ordered.” Since the lust expressed was still directed towards the female (from the male perspective), sodomy became justifiable, and such self-defenses often manifested in the demonization of the homosexual as a means to further condone heterosexual sodomitic practice through stark contrast. Thus, the question of sexual orientation was born. To clarify, I do not fault Freud primarily for his interior gaze; he was only rediscovering within a new paradigm the practices and discoveries of Christian ascetics and desert dwellers (not to mention mystics and ascetics from other religious traditions) from centuries beforehand. I primarily most hold the Church accountable for failing to adequately respond in love and in truth to these newly self-discovered men and women. Rather, at the cost of the homosexual, the Church was satisfied to ease its sexual praxis for the heterosexuals within its own communion. Preferring its self-congratulatory moral high ground, the Church at large remained content to ostracize homosexual individuals instead of recognizing them as the ostracized toward which the Church was meant to be a home and a hope.
The Church was tossed into a question of identity formerly unfamiliar to it, and thus required a new mode of theological confrontation. The Christian sexual ethic of this period took comfort in natural law arguments, much in tune with the Modern context in which the Church found itself, with an intensive focus on biological realities oriented to the creation of children. Particularly in Catholic circles, not only could homosexuality remain under condemnation, but also all sexual practices which concluded “unnaturally.” However, while the natural law arguments make a rational case for monogamous heterosexuality geared toward childbearing, they lacked the existential answer which lay in the presuppositions of the Freudian concern, at the brink of the Postmodern anthropological conception (he was influential on the French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan, whose own concerns with sexual repression had near ubiquitous influence over his Postmodern progeny).
Unfortunately, the Church made the mistake of reacting to homosexuals with Modernistic defenses and moralistic isolationism. Upon the revelation of the Postmodern move, natural law arguments became quickly impotent to influence chosen practices, both theoretically and practically, even within the Church. The “so what?” rings too loudly in Postmodern ears. The Church mistakenly asserted the primacy of the biological and pragmatic elements of sexuality as mere rules to be followed, divorced from the interiority which Christian practice was designed at once to reveal and to foster in relation to supra-cosmic communion with the God-head. Sexuality became a repressed element of the self divorced from an understanding of its teleological opportunity not for biological children, but for spiritual transcendence. Now, without an easily available cultural means to even understand ourselves as “Christian” outside of the Modern and Postmodern spirit, a way forward (which at once requires a way back) is lost from our general cultural parlance. We live in the ruins of a disenchanted world of matter floating meaninglessly amidst void. As Christians, we can only see such a worldview as painfully tragic, reprehensible, and empty. In the Postmodern venue, reality has been “liberated” from itself in a final narcissistic turn. And as inherently communal, historical beings, all of us are inextricably caught up in the Modern turning Postmodern spirit of this age.
However, as previously discussed, classical Christianity offers a powerful counter-narrative to that which tends to thoughtlessly mold our core assumptions as Moderns and Postmoderns. Fundamentally, the Christian vision of humanity sees each person as the image of God, both imaging God to the world (as prophet) and reuniting the world with God (as priest). Sexuality cannot be dismissed from that image, yet neither can sexuality totally encompass that image. The sexual act as disconnected from the transcendent source of life is a spiritually impotent act, a courting of death with death and a mockery of sexual purpose. In the conclusion to his chief work on Christian philosophy, I Am the Truth, the French Catholic phenomenologist Michel Henry utters a clear warning, “[E]verywhere a man or woman is only an object, a dead thing, a network of neurons, a bundle of natural processes—where one is put in the presence of a man or a woman but finds oneself in the presence of what, stripped of the transcendental Self that constitutes its essence, is no longer anything, is only death.” Christ released men from that cosmos in which all fades to death. He brought eternal life, and thus opened up all things, including sexuality, to his transcendent purpose. “Sin” should not be simply understood as a transgression of the laws of God, but most fundamentally as a movement of ontological dis-union with God, in preference for this world of death. Outside of Christ, Being is inescapably strangled by Death.
To return from theoretical phenomenology, sinful sexuality is a constant possibility and temptation to all humanity regardless of orientation or marital status. However, when the Christian sexual ethic was relegated to a biological function and lost a sense of its spiritual condition, it was easily overtaken by the Modern, Romantic, and Freudian impulses. Sexuality lost it purpose as an imaging of the Triune God to the world and as a transcendental-relation act; it became a means of self-fulfillment and biological release. If marriage becomes a means towards satisfying our sexual desires in a “non-sinful” way by obeying God’s commands, it disparages the spirit toward which God’s law points, mistaking the law for the spiritual purpose of the practice. In the Postmodern disconnection between mind and body, the body no longer has a voice of its own, but rather acts as mere vessel to be manipulated and dominated by the all-controlling mind. A Christian response here, following from the incarnation, demands our bodies be treated with a respect and holiness even in conflict with our own impulses and desires for it; indeed, part of the Christian walk is even coming into a divine-relational communion with oneself. Our bodies are us (even if not comprehensive of us), and for this reason how we use our bodies and other bodies is formative to our own personhood as well as that of others. Therefore, the sexual act always bears consequences which go beyond ourselves, and even our partners. In a Christian anthropological vision, sexuality cannot be divorced from its connectivity to all Being. Sexuality is the ultimate human expression of love and union. It has great potential to draw us closer to God, or farther away, though as historically and theologically expressed, it is far from a necessity to the spiritual life. Enjoyment is not irrelevant to sex, but it cannot be the telos behind the sexual act.
Exacerbating the cultural issue, Western Christians have upheld marriage in recent centuries to the detriment of all other relationships as the apotheosis of our earthly relational existence—if not necessarily in preaching, assuredly in practice. But this over-romanticized version of marriage is seen more as a means of relief from suffering rather than an opportunity to carry one’s cross after Christ. The tendency to place our full hope for happiness in marriage is unfair to the finite humanity of our spouses, detrimental to all other relationships which suffer an unheeded disregard, and dangerously totalizing to understanding how to live the Christian life. In an ironic sense, Christians very much have themselves to blame for the LGBT movement, for they created and uplifted the very cultural idol the LGBT community now pursues. But if this self-fulfillment narrative of marriage and love is to be believed as either good or minimally non-consequential, one must be intentionally blind to all the historically anomalous social problems our society faces: mass shootings, opiate epidemics, suicide proliferation, soaring divorce rates, growing unwillingness to marry, absent fathers, environmental destruction… a common thread among all these issues is existential loneliness and disconnection. Relationship, instead of a gifting of self to the splendor of the Other, becomes instead a mode of self-pleasing, a consumerism of the Other, which is actually a dismissal of the Other and a domination of the Other by the desires of the Self. To place this ethic at the center of marriage, sexual identity, or our holistic approach to the world leads inexorably to the isolation of Self, a lashing out of violence, and to the eventual destruction of Self and Other.
In The Agony of Eros, contemporary German philosopher Byung-Chul Han explores the concept and loss of Eros drawing heavily from both classical and modern continental philosophical sources. “Eros” is a Greek word for love, which is often linked closely with sexual love, but encompasses much more. In Han’s understanding, love does not constitute a carefully balanced power relation designed to grant the Self maximal pleasure with minimal risk, but rather a transformative passion open to the “piercing” of the Self by the Other. “Piercing” is a Biblical image as well: Christ’s hands and feet are pierced, likely at the same moment as the piercing of Mary’s soul (Luke 2:35). Love inheres throughout those Scriptural passages. Han continues, “Not every end amounts to violence [a power relation concept].… Love is an absolute end unto itself. It is absolute because it presupposes death, the surrender of the self. The ‘true essence of love consists in giving up the consciousness of oneself, forgetting oneself in another self.” In the Self’s relational “death,” the Self gifts himself to the lover, and the Self is reborn through that death. Here again can be heard the echoes of the paradoxical Christian revelation of life found in death, as well as Michel Henry’s phenomenological death which haunts those who cling to their mere biological life. Significantly, power consists of the Self dominating the Other to its purposes; whereas, Eros is the Self dying to the Other and being given back himself made new.
The Erotic forces us to feel a personal and cosmological absence (the incompleteness of the “autonomous self” or the egotistical “I”), and woos us into a reconnection with the interwovenness of Being. Han usefully quotes Hegel to this effect: “Something is alive…only to the extent that it contains contradiction within itself: indeed, its force is this, to hold and endure contradiction within.” Love of this sort demands suffering because it finds itself in contradiction, longing to be one with the Other while remaining the Self. The negative aspect of life, that is the acceptance of the Self’s death, is necessary for engaging in the communion of love. And it is this ability to hold the contradiction of love which gives life its vitality. True Eros is necessary for true life. In contrast, “A survivor is like the undead: too dead to live, and too alive to die.” In Byung-Chul Han’s understanding, a Self without Eros is equivalent to a walking dead. Eros therefore is far more than the yearning for bare sexual satisfaction, but is a fundamental aspect of ourselves that opens us up to true vitality and connection with the world. Eros does not comprise our Being, but rather permeates and directs it. The Christian ethic demands Eros be directed at the highest level of relation to God, who is both love and life. The Divine Eros then makes possible an outpouring of love to all creation, including each other and ourselves.
Within this conception of Eros in its classical form is an incredible potential and possibility for the heterosexual and homosexual alike to find renewed joy and direction in the breadth of the Erotic as something far more expansive than temporal sexual satisfaction. The hyper-sexualization of our culture blinds us to the highest potentials of union which form the basis for joyous sexuality. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the LGBT movement at large willfully upholds the Modern and Postmodern errors concerning human sexuality. They take upon themselves their yesteryear oppressor’s anthropological assumptions and instead of reverting them, celebrate them in their own sphere. To my mind, the LGBT movement is insufficiently radical and instead misses its opportunity to cast off the “capitalist/colonial heteronormative” standards of its past oppressors because it maintains the same anthropological reduction of sex to sexual satisfaction and fulfillment. They too place the value of Eros as a hopelessly temporal pleasure-seeking activity separate from something transcendent and receptive to the absolutely Other. What appears as liberating and self-willed is truly the continuation of enslavement to the very ideals that both initially created and ostracized the homosexual.
The LGBT movement has a sort of religious ethic to it; it is asking questions of identity, community, and solidarity, and is searching for historical continuity. I believe most homosexuals do not consciously operate on the level of viewing people as bodies designed for mutual self-satisfaction. They too sense the same driving absence in themselves and the need to find true communion with persons. Eros opens up the possibility, I might say the necessity, of achieving this union outside sexual activity as an absolute end. Unfortunately, they have been left bereft of alternative anthropological answers to their needs. In my analysis as an outsider, this lack prompts the LGBT movement to lean heavily upon a historical oppressor narrative for its unifying raison d’être. This is an “enemy outside the gate” form of unification, which is temporal and negative, and thus depends primarily upon fear and resentment (and thus the presence of and focus on the oppressor) in opposition to any deeper, positive address to the human condition. Nietzsche’s warning rings true in this context: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” But if the LGBT community wishes to avoid this fate, they must not follow the errors of their predecessors, even as they rise against them. They will end in the same existential destructiveness.
Yet for all that, I find it difficult to lay blame to the LGBT community for rejecting the transcendent approach to Eros. The Church, who should have been the witness to this transcendent vision, was first to forget its own vision. The Church, in its power, dismissed the homosexual wholesale, defining her holistically by her sexual predilections instead of embracing her as the image of God, confronting her as an equal person, and opening a pathway to Divine Eros. The Church failed to perform the difficult task of bearing its cross and loving the outcasts and sinners in its own communion. It did so at first by ostracizing the homosexual. More recently the Church has begun to succumb to LGBT demands, as homosexuality has now advanced in cultural power. In both outright rejection and appeasing submission, the Church fails to recover itself and its witness. Love, true Eros, exists in neither of these approaches, but rather by loving the other through a communion of suffering and an offering of spiritual healing. But where was the Church in the AIDS crisis? Where was the Church amidst the many news stories of legitimate homophobic bullying and bigotry? Barring any variety of exceptions, far too often, Christians were found to be silent, contented, or even defending the oppressor. We are called to be the same body of believers who embraced lepers and prostitutes, who birthed ascetic monastics and celibate lovers. At least in the wealthy West, the Church must again learn how to suffer with the suffering and challenge the powers that be.
A lesson can be learned here, that the true privilege of the privileged class has been the opportunity to define the meaning of “privilege,” and precisely here do we (and I mean all of us) most need the LGBT community to turn in rejection. Marriage is the most obvious example of this lesson, simply in the fact that gaining the “right” to marriage is the marker of progress for the LGBT community. In this move, it is not marriage which has been conquered by the LGBT movement, but rather the LGBT movement that has been conquered by marriage. This “marriage,” divorced from any grander spiritual meaning, is emptied out of its purpose, a shadow of the truth it is meant to inculcate and reveal. It is a “marriage” unworthy of defense, but it is a “marriage” which the Church has unwittingly lauded for far too long. Modern marriage is little more than the state’s recognition of specific legal rights and tax breaks in recognition of a contractual arrangement, and society shall soon learn that the concept of “marriage” is excessive and antiquated to that end. This tragedy is not the contrivance of progressivism, but rather the failure of Christendom. In the culture war over marriage, we are fighting for a Golden Calf that we Christians have constructed. In the Modern mind, marriage became a biological, contractual arrangement with a focus on production and circumstantial benefit, a servant to a particular political conception of the “common good.” The Romantic period attempted to resurrect a more transcendent vision of love, from which we gain our contemporary association of love with fuzzy feelings and the sublime, but natural beauty and passing feelings can not liberate us from the reality of our mortality. In a Postmodern mind, the concept of “good” itself is desecrated, and thus “marriage” has nothing inherently sacred or good to offer beyond one’s preference for it, an admittedly temporal relation of power and self-gratification through use of the Other, even if “consensual” use.
As Christians, we have too often been happy to accept these competing conceptions of marriage in our hearts, while simply maintaining the now arbitrary trappings of Christian marital customs. In themselves, these novel conceptions of relationship have proven incapable of addressing the perceived absence in our being. The LGBT community, via a richer and more charitable exchange with its Christian roots (indeed, the LGBT movement is theoretically contingent on the historic Christian Revolution), can rediscover many of its own questions and a surprisingly rich variety of answers that can both take the consumerist American culture to task and offer a meaningfully radical inspiration to their own community, not to mention even the Christian community. But why would the contented homosexual be tempted to re-evaluate his views? Because as I contend, the current metaphysical picture (consciously recognized or not) of the LGBT community is one of bodies, power, and pleasure-seeking, which is the same theoretical dynamic which oppressed their community in the first place and which holds the latent tools of future oppression. A Christian paradigm, with its inalienable understanding of universal personal dignity, offers a possibility of condemning such oppression regardless of time and place. The contented homosexual requires a sexuality with content. Like the vast majority of us, the homosexual finds himself to be a person in existential conflict, seeking union with persons by means of gratifying himself with bodies. However, to contextualize sex as fundamentally consensual gratification (consumerist terms) empties sex of its inextricable meta-personal meaningfulness, which is the reason we so quickly turn to sex to quench the absence in ourselves. As argued by contemporary British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, if sex did not carry real meaningfulness, then the crime of rape would be theoretically akin to being “spat upon,” but this claim would be profoundly untrue. In its most evil uses, one can clearly discern that sexual practice reaches into the depths of our personhood. Thus, the Christian view more acutely explains actual human experience of the significance of the sexual act, if by no other evidence than the horrific reality of sexual victims. As such, stringent constraints on sexual expression and purpose make sense when sex is perceived in its precarious power over the self and the world to manifest both good and evil. In short, Christian Eros is good, true, and beautiful, but it is also incredibly challenging. Whether accepting Christian answers to these questions or not, the LGBT community nevertheless shows us that relationships and love cannot become solely servant to the pragmatic political conception of the “common good,” but must be highly personal and essential to who we are. They must only go a step farther.
As can be seen, the core of the issue is primarily neither political nor ethical, but first metaphysical and ontological. What must be re-realized is the broad potential of Eros to incorporate sexuality and transcend baser sexual instincts. Furthermore, Christians must learn to respect the unique mode of being which homosexuals have discovered within themselves, for their sincere love for particular persons and unique understanding of the world is just as capable and needful of joining to the Divine Eros as the heterosexual’s. This mode of being must then discover its potential for fullness of life within Christian contexts. Too often, the debate within Church conversation oscillates between a call to either mortify the (homo)sexual passion into non-being or open it to release via novel theological justifications (which take their inspiration from secular critical theory). The problem with the Church’s internal debate is that it cannot see itself—its own ineptitude to accept the reality of personhood the Church declares, which demands a relinquishment of Modern cultural norms. The self-martyrdom called for in the homosexual is no different from the self-martyrdom called for in all of us; when marriage becomes a means of sin avoidance and the chief self-fulfillment of our lives on this earth, for all its goodness, we do a disservice not only to the LGBT community, but to ourselves and our own historic Christian witness. A successful marriage does not equate to salvation, nor does it mean an end of the quest to offer our sexuality, our Eros, to God. A “successful marriage” cannot heal our human condition. Sexual satisfaction for its own sake will never satisfy our sexuality. We must concur with St. Augustine that, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
At end, the Church needs the LGBT community because they offer an unavoidable mirror revealing our own decrepitude as a witness to the world of an other-world. We are incapable of speaking to the needs of the LGBT community because we have too greatly prized the anthropological reductionism that has ostracized the homosexual from participation in the unwitting sacrament of sexual self-fulfillment, or more properly we have reconceived ascetic sexual liberation as legalistic sexual libertinism. As Christians, we need to re-embrace the conception of martyrdom in our own sexual and relational lives regardless of orientation. We must die in order to live. In that, we must move beyond theory. “To love the sinner and hate the sin” fails as a worthwhile ethic in the typical sense that it offers a rationalistic answer to an existential need. There is only the sinner. Love her. To truly love the LGBT community is to love them unconditionally in the face of all fear and reproach, all resentment and vitriol, and to join those homosexuals in our Christian communities by embracing the martyrdom of the passions with them. Remember, we are one in Christ.
In practice, this has historically looked like fostering joy in celibacy, fasting from sex in our married lives, maintaining a higher standard of sexual ethics (against adultery, pre-marital sex, and significantly porn and masturbation), and demanding more radical lifestyles of Christian living, including sexual discipline in married life. The standard of sexual ethic must be uniform according to the failures of heterosexual and homosexual practices alike, but while uniform in expectation, the manner of healing must be tailored to the needs of the particular person both in wisdom and in love. We also need to restore a focus on friendship and neighborliness as just as important to our Christian communion as marriage, if not more. Not all of us will have married partners, but we do all have the Church. This requires us reaching out to homosexuals specifically in ministry and love without strings attached or an alternative agenda. We must confront them as people. The historical Church witnessed married lovers who lived freely in celibate harmony and martyrs who accepted resolutely and joyously their own earthly torment, not for fear of hell, but for the love of Christ regardless of all consequence in this world or the next. We must remember them and seek to be like them.
To renew and lead this charge against the reductionist sexual ethics and self-actualization narratives of Modernity and Postmodernity, homosexuals are uniquely gifted with the ability to be radical witnesses both within the Church and to the greater culture. However, if we Christians regard the homosexual with inherent suspicion, as something ignoble or lesser, we do not only disparage arguably the most noble among us, but we also fail to see the true glory of Christ at work. Sadly, the homosexual Christian finds himself in the position of suspicion and often disgust in both the groups to which he belongs, but the discomfort and challenge he offers either group is desperately needed for the salvation of both. A “heterosexual” sexual orientation is incapable of replacing the proper human orientation to the Divine which transcends and transforms the sexual passions. Indeed, “orientation” had the original meaning of turning oneself Eastward, which in the ancient church was always the direction of the people toward the altar, towards God. Sexual orientation is not merely a matter of self-discovery, but more meaningfully a matter of self-redirection toward the mystery of love and communion found in the Triune God. I will end with the words of St. Porphyrios, a 20th century Orthodox Christian monk who described the Divine Eros just as he joyously lived it: “Christ is life, the source of life, the source of joy, the source of the true light, everything. Whoever loves Christ and other people truly lives life. Life without Christ is death; it is hell, not life. That is what hell is – the absence of love. Life is Christ. Love is the life of Christ. Either you will be in life or in death. It’s up to you to decide.”