What Place Is There for Celibacy? Wesley Hill on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of Jenell Paris’ book, The End of Sexuality. I talked about celibacy as an option for Christians who believe that they cannot engage in same-sex physical relationships. Some of you, with kindness and respect, expressed incredulity about celibacy. Around the same time, I came into contact with Wesley Hill, author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Although I have not yet read Wes’ book, I have had the pleasure of reading other essays he has written related to this topic. I asked if he would be willing to offer a post for this blog, and he agreed:

God’s “Yes” As the Greater Story

by Wesley Hill

Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen tells the story of two boys, both Jewish, growing up in Brooklyn towards the end of World War II and the years immediately following. Danny, the son of a venerated Hasidic rabbi, is brilliant. His friend Reuven is his closest confidant and respected by Danny’s father in equal measure. As the novel unfolds, we learn that the only time Danny’s father speaks to him is on Shabbat, when they discuss and debate the Talmud. On all other occasions he never addresses his son—to the point of sometimes treating Reuven as a go-between who can relay a message to Danny.

Rarely has a novel affected me as much as The Chosen. I still remember the anguish I felt in reading of Danny’s bewilderment and turmoil as he comes of age in the great rabbi’s house. At one point, he confesses to Reuven, “You want to know how I feel about my father? I admire him. I don’t know what he’s trying to do to me with this weird silence that he’s established between us, but I admire him. I respect him and trust him completely, which I why I think I can live with his silence. I don’t know why I trust him, but I do.”

Near the end of the story, in a climactic scene, Danny’s father, Reb Saunders, reveals at last the reasons for the silence. An immigrant from Europe where he’d witnessed horrific persecution of Jews, the old rabbi wanted his son to develop the maturity and sensitivity to be able to enter the pain and suffering of his people. As the silence ran its course, Danny “learned to find answers for himself,” Reb Saunders tells Reuven. “He suffered and learned to listen to the suffering of others. In the silence between us, he began to hear the world crying.”

In our time and place, most of us would likely recoil from Danny’s father’s technique, and that’s probably for the best. Raising a son without speaking to him seems like a dangerous experiment to attempt with a fragile human life hanging in the balance, even if the aim is noble. Surely there are better ways to instill compassion and empathy in a child. And yet I think Reb Saunders’ strange parenting may allow us an insight into God’s dealings with us. Sometimes the obedience that is required of us as Christians appears “weird,” to borrow Danny’s word. Judged by the best lights we have available to us, it may appear worse than “weird”: it may seem cruel, disheartening, dehumanizing.

I have written elsewhere about my own choice to live a celibate life. I am a Christian, and my understanding of Scripture and Christianity’s historic teaching about human sexuality leads me to believe that my homosexual feelings aren’t meant to be indulged. At times this obedience to Christian teaching can seem stifling, depressing, and even oppressive. There are times when I say, like Danny, that I don’t understand it—even though I continue to trust and love the One who, I believe, asks it of me.

But, also like Danny, I’ve found that trying to understand a father’s strange behavior from within my own frame of reference, without taking into account the story the father himself tells, is bound to be misleading. God’s “No” only makes sense from the standpoint of his “Yes,” as Karl Barth said. For that reason, any attempt to see why God might forbid same-sex partnerships has to pay attention to what God says “Yes” to instead.

Christianity tells a story of male and female created for one another in the perfection of Eden. Falling from God’s intention, however, we’ve made a mess of the world. But God didn’t leave us alone with the wreckage. In Jesus, God has come among us to restore and heal what we’ve ruined. When Jesus died and rose again, he made it possible for us to anticipate a renewed Eden. That new creation won’t be fully accomplished until the final day of resurrection of which Easter morning was the “firstfruits,” but until that time, we catch glimpses—sneak previews, as it were—of its beauty.

Only in that context can we understand God’s will for our sexual behavior. Redeemed and remade in Christ, we’re meant to pattern our new lives after the splendor and wisdom of God’s new creation. God hasn’t thrown away what he first declared to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Rather, he has reclaimed it from sin’s power, refashioning it and leading his redeemed children into its holy goodness. Marriage between a man and woman, as God ordained in the early pages of Genesis, now points forward to the greater marriage of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). By the same token, celibacy witnesses to that heavenly marriage, too, by saying now, in advance, “Christ and his church give me all the love I need.” (Something like this, surely, is what Jesus must have meant when he spoke of those who are celibate “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 19:12.)

It’s no surprise that this picture isn’t appealing to many of us, at least not initially. We’ve spent most of our lives inhabiting an alternative story, taking our cues from a different narrative. But like Danny’s hearing for the first time his father’s explanation of his strange silence, some of us may find that things look different in the light of God’s explanation of his strange redemption of the world. The obedience we once found to be totally arbitrary and bizarre may suddenly begin to make some sense. And the divine “No” may be something we find ourselves giving assent to, in the dazzling light of the even greater divine “Yes.”

 


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