After in the spring of 1998 John, my very first, philosophically and personally closest, and seemingly “holiest” of friends at college revealed to me, and only me, that he was struggling with feelings of homosexuality, not much happened the rest of that semester. Our friendship went on as normal and I don’t remember us talking about it all the time. But over the summer, John’s inner turmoil grew as he read Nietzsche and developed a more nihilistic outlook on the world.
When we returned to school, we spent a lot of time together, more than I was used to spending with any one person, as I was (and am) more typically accustomed to rotating my friends very frequently and not spending daily time with any one of them except if they are a girlfriend and I am in love.
That semester we argued long and vigorously about the existence of God and the possibility of knowledge. He made nihilistic and atheistic arguments inspired by his reading of Nietzsche and I argued back to him as a Kierkegaardian presuppositionalist. John and I shared doubts about the ability of reason to secure its own foundations and to guarantee a robust epistemology or metaphysics. One fateful night the previous December, I had even explicitly gone close to the precipice of atheism with him and with another close friend as we went over innumerable reasons for disbelief together. But now I was adamant that the Christian view of the world was ultimately more coherent and that on that account faith was more justified than his extreme doubtfulness.
I also didn’t and, still don’t, share his fundamentally nihilistic interpretation of atheism. He described that he could imagine coming to a place where, not believing in any ultimate truth or ultimate value, he could wake up one morning and feel no compulsion to move. He would simply stare at the ceiling. And his mother might come in and say, “John, come on, get up!” and he would not move. There would be no purpose to motivate him.
Finding this alien and astonishing I told him I could never imagine that psychological state. Even were there no God, I would still love whom and what I loved and be passionately committed to life. I thought (and think) it absurd that one’s love would require an external rubber stamp in order to give it meaning and motivation. As I would now put it through a paraphrase of Nietzsche–we love life not because we are so used to living, but because we are so used to loving. It is the love that is basic to my existence and psychology and it is foolish to think it rationally should cease because it lacks some form of supernatural endorsement.
Mixed in with all his theological and philosophical pessimism was a dark torment over his homosexuality. I was still the only person who knew what he was going through and he talked more and more about it. I was scrupulously trying to love him and be his confessor who would hear out his struggles without making him feel judged and hated. He talked about his crushes on guys. He talked about the research he had done into the psychology of homosexuality and talked all about the subculture of homosexuality. He talked about what pleased him aesthetically about men and about homosexual love and sex. He talked about the ways that what he saw as the forbidden and evil character of his sexuality became a perverse part of its appeal.
He also would describe in vivid detail his lusts for other guys we knew. He would talk about the agony he experienced when one night at dinner members of his all-male, famously religious housing group, all marveled enthusiastically upon his admitting, in response to their questions, that he never lusted over girls. In his telling they were almost raucous in their jealousy and awe of his seemingly superhuman powers of righteousness.
Not one of them expressed the slightest doubt about his sexuality, his demeanor was so convincingly “spiritual” and self-controlled that they completely credulously self-deceived themselves into chalking his restraint up purely to holiness. John especially agonized as a particular guy on whom he had a great crush, and towards whom he had intense lust, expressed astonishment at John’s supposed resistance to all lust. John wanted to burst out and proclaim, “I DO have lust and it’s for you!!!” John felt guilty, alienated, and profoundly misunderstood and helpless when it came to all this undue spiritual reverence he was receiving.
And I was his only outlet for expressing all of this. And the gloom of his (we would later learn) clinical depression was oppressive for me. The burden of vicariously carrying his psychosexual torment had deep emotional effects on me too. Plus, some shameful homophobia was at work. John and I were extremely close. One night I winced a bit when I talked to a woman I had a crush on about going to dinner with her and her boyfriend and her response was to exclaim “Bring John!”
Was I unwittingly part of a homosexual partnership? Having suffered countless painful rejections from numerous girls for over a decade, I had wholly irrational, absurdly homophobic, fears that now (somehow by accident!) I was in a gay relationship against my will! But I never, until this morning, even told John that or tried to burden him with the ways that his homosexuality threatened my own sense of identity. And neither then nor at any time afterward, did I ever broach the subject of whether he was attracted at all to me.
Then came our school’s annual fall recess in October, when most students leave the campus. John and I were among the few who remained in what felt like a ghost university. With unusually long stretches of time with no classes and little schoolwork to worry about, we spent long periods in discussion exploring all the caves of John’s sexuality and debating theology long into dark nights of the soul. Eventually, I believe at the end of this weekend, wearying of living inside John’s head so much, I began to realize I could not be John’s only outlet and recommended he talk to a theology professor with whom we were both very close.
I also came to realize that the more John had confessed to me and the more he opened up and expressed in greater and greater detail the inner workings of his homosexual feelings, that he may be becoming more comfortable with accepting them. The more he owned them, the more he might understand his identity through them. The more he could confess and still find acceptance rather than the end of the world, or even merely my rejection, the more he might be comfortable staying gay. Added to this he had moments, amidst all his talk about how sinful he found his feelings, wherein he would admit frankly that part of him strongly did not want to change. I sensed this was the dominant drive within him when push came to shove.
And so I worried. Was all this loving of my friend “enabling” him in his “sin”? By accepting him so much no matter what he confessed, was I making it easier for him to stay gay? Did I have an obligation to “expel the immoral brother” as Paul had suggested? I began to indicate to him that this might be something I might have to do. Then, I believe the Monday or Tuesday after that weekend, he went to talk with our theology professor. And that night we wound up embroiled in another characteristically long and vigorous debate about the truth of Christianity.
As I remember it I got frustrated over our repetitiveness. I felt like we argued down one line of arguments and counter-arguments only to reach a point where John said, “okay, but what about this” and switched to another major topic. Then when we argued down that line, he switched back to the original line of debate. And we alternated back and forth until I felt like we’d reached an impasse, and told him so and after complaining about this once or twice, in frustration, I suggested he should just leave. After a moment or two of contemplation he suggested he should be going–in a curious way that didn’t seem to acknowledge that I had effectively just thrown him out myself.
The following Saturday night, I was working on a long (eventually 180 stanza) poem on my theology of God when three members of John’s housing group, each a close friend of mine, purposefully and seriously filed into my room. I expected them to throw me in the shower in my clothes, which was a popular hazing ritual that members of the housing group engaged in. But instead, they were deadly earnest. One of them said to me, “We found a suicide note on John’s computer and you were the only one we can figure might know what is going on.”
The blood drained from my body.
John was out of town with other members of the housing group at some religious function with them. They were in the process of contacting them to assure he was safe. The note was found on his computer. His roommate had gone to use the internet on John’s computer and clicked the “x” in the corner of a word processing document. As the document closed, John’s roommate caught the opening lines of the document, they had read:
Dear Mom and Dad,
By the time you read this, I will have taken my own life.
John’s roommate couldn’t retrieve the document. It had never been saved and, so, was gone. John’s secret was not out. (Though I always wonder if John’s roommate secretly did read it and destroyed it to spare John an outing at such a sensitive and vulnerable time in his life.) My friends and I went to our theology professor’s house and we banged on his door. He came down in his sleeping clothes and I talked with him one-on-one for hours as we tried to sort out what to do.
The next day John had safely returned and been assigned, in order to avoid expulsion, to meet with the school therapist, Warren Throckmorton (who has, incidentally, in recent years become a vocal critic on his blog of reparative attempts to change gays). I believe John had already met with him when I confronted him. I was livid. He explained that in the document that had been taken for a suicide note he had sketched out the pros and cons of living and dying. He had decided to leave them up for a while so that he might objectively consider them.
I was appalled and alienated by what I took to be such a bloodless objectivity about his own living or dying and chastised him for it. He told me he found me disrespectful. I told him he was the one disrespecting his own life. Again, I felt no resonance with this view that whether life was worth being lived could be settled as a matter of rational debate. The question itself was a sign of sickness, not a sign of a mind that was just being rationally thorough and scrupulous about asking every question.
I remember our conversation that day as being relatively brief and very tense with neither of us, I don’t think, adequately understanding we were dealing with a form of mental illness that was neither ultimately brought on by arguments nor resolvable with arguments alone. We drifted apart, as I remember, in the following months. John came back from Christmas break, claiming a renewed faith and talking within different paradigms about his beliefs. He was now embracing the idea of God incarnate as a human being on the cross, sharing in the sufferings of the world, as more central to his faith than propositional beliefs about metaphysics and epistemology and ethics, of the sort he had come to despair of ever finding.
For my part, John’s dangerous dalliance with Nietzsche created a mythic aura around the philosopher. I believed that my Kierkegaardianism, by which I had bolstered my faith after John and another friend and I had gone to the edge of disbelief together a year prior, needed to be fully contrasted with the possibility of Nietzscheanism. In my mind the choice was between what I saw as the two monumental nineteenth century proto-existentialist exposers of the folly of reason: Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. I had clung to Kierkegaard. It would become time, the following spring, to confront Nietzsche.
October 1999:When I did study Nietzsche, the most decisive thing that Nietzsche taught me, the thing I re-read twice in the Antichrist (section 50), and which I internalized as the basis of my decision to leave the faith, was that beliefs were matters of moral and intellectual conscience. It was irresponsible to believe anything without knowing, conscientiously and scrupulously, that it was rationally justifiable.
I was ashamed that dogmatic adherence to my faith, to my beliefs that were not grounded in evidence, had led me to push away my friend at his darkest and most desperate hour. My homophobia and my subordination of my reason to a dubious belief system had enabled me to risk pushing my closest friend into the arms of death out of a sense of moral responsibility. It is a special kind of evil that can accomplish such moral perversity as to convince someone that their most destructive and recklessly formed beliefs and actions are their duty.
Fittingly, when I came to this realization the first person I talked with and debated with effectively as an atheist was John. He took all my arguments against the truth of the faith in stride. I am not even sure he comprehended right away that I was telling him that I had come to decisively disbelieve and disown the faith. He and I would continue to have excellent philosophical discussions in the coming months and years, even as I was now arguing that he should fully embrace his sexuality and abandon the faith with its unjustified and unhealthy strictures and irrationality. The barrier of our disagreement on the truth of Christianity never kept us from remaining close philosophical brothers.
The fundamental, potentially destructive, existential and logical contradiction that I experienced in trying to truly love my friend while also trying to hold his most basic sexuality and psycho-sexual longings as sinful are a major part of why I think that, while anti-gay religious people are not always motivated by hate (as I know I was not), nonetheless it is impossible for them to adequately love their gay friends while trying to designate homosexuality as a sin and hate it. The only way to genuinely love gay people is to accept them as gay. (More on this is in my post: Confronting Conservative Christians on the Consequences of their Homophobia.)
Today, John is an openly gay Benedictine monk. This morning, he and I talked about the events described in this post and what has become of him since in the video embedded above. In a second video, we discussed, much more contentiously, the relationship between Roman Catholicism, homosexuality, and gay people. In that video we also talked quite a bit about monastic life and sexuality.
Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted:
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted: